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Serena’s serve

Serena Williams closed her career at the US Open. And even as she lost, she won.

Serena Williams thanked fans after after her match Friday, likely the last of her professional career.Matthew Stockman/Getty

“Can you serve?” the iconic Billie Jean King asked a 6-year-old Serena Williams in 1988.

Toss the ball into the air, swing her racket, and effectively shoot her shot? Yes, she could.

No one serves it like Serena. Her skill, a combination of grace, power, and speed cultivated over a lifetime, is of practice and persistence and specific Serena-ness.

Friday in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena closed her career at the US Open. Her final match brought to a finish a storybook run that kept us locked into the tournament this week. She never gave up against Ajla Tomljanovic.

Even as she lost what is likely to be her last professional match, it was a celebration. The fairy tale ending of 24 Grand Slam titles didn’t come true. And yet, Serena triumphed.

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Gravity seems to be in conversation with Williams, the younger of the sisters from Compton who carried a different kind of Black girl energy onto the tennis courts.

Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe made history and opened the door for Black folk. Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, and Chanda Rubin set a door stopper to keep it from closing.

The Williams sisters, with the click-and-clack hymn of their beads swinging from their hair? They upheld the tradition of those before them by ripping that door right off the hinges.

A Black girl’s beads adorn her and make music that sings, “I’m here. I’m proud. I won’t be erased.”

Seeing Serena’s daughter, Olympia, at the US Open, her hair in braids and beads, is as much a love letter to her mother as echoes of our elders singing a praise of possibilities for the future.

This is Serena’s legacy. This is the legend of the Williams sisters, for as Serena so eloquently said after her final match, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.

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Together and apart, they are a reflection of Black women in America.

Venus Williams (left) and her sister Serena Williams shared a light moment during a doubles tennis match in 1999 at the French Open in Paris. LAURENT REBOURS/Associated Press

Venus and Serena came into tennis with a self-assurance so strong and will so steady, they were questioned. They were taunted. They were unstoppable.

After beating Anett Kontaveit earlier this week, Serena was asked how she beat the No. 2 player in the world.

Are you surprised at yourself, with your level?

There was a pause. A smile. And the slightest of side-eye, the knowing, the release of a lifetime of doubt.

At 40, in her last season of tennis, after a tough few years, it is understandable folk would be in awe of Serena’s power and athleticism.

Still, she and her sister, like most Black women who have ever dared to make their dreams a reality, have always been greeted with shock before delight. Consistently having one’s confidence under examination, one’s skill questioned, and one’s general existence be treated like a spectacle is labor atop the work you do to excel.

In that pause, flashbacks of 14-year-old Venus telling a reporter she knows she can beat her opponent and a reporter being baffled by her confidence came to mind. The footage of 11-year-old Serena being asked who she wanted to be like if she were a tennis player sprung forth.

“Well, I’d like other people to be like me,” she answered.

Serena grew into one of the greatest players in the game’s history, an athlete’s athlete. She’s won 23 Grand Slam titles and more than 100 titles.

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She did it under pressure, not just under the weight of the competition, but the racist culture of the sport, of the world.

Venus and Serena were raised with a king’s confidence because their parents knew what they would be up against as Black women in a white, elitist game.

At 19, at Indian Wells Tennis Tournament, Serena was booed. Her family was heckled. And she left the winner, the crowd still jeering.

As stunning as she is, she’s been called ugly and picked apart. Her physique, strength, and attitude have been ridiculed. Her outfits have been made the center of controversy. She was tested for doping five times in 2018. And despite beating Maria Sharapova 19 consecutive times — and then beating her some more — the tennis world considered Sharapova her rival. How?

Serena Williams played a forehand return in the 2018 French Open. CHRISTOPHE SIMON

The sisters faced volleys of racism, sexism, and classism, but nothing could keep Venus and Serena out of the game.

Having grown up on the courts, they came to win. And Serena became synonymous with victory.

When she serves and the smack of the racket as it cuts through the air and hits the ball, it’s as if she smashes every doubt cast upon her. Upon us.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, champions are to be defined by victors. No one has won the game of tennis quite like Serena.

“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams,” Serena wrote in her Vogue essay last month announcing her plans to retire. “But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.”

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She fantasized of playing professional tennis. She dreamed of people aspiring to be like her. She trained her entire life to be the greatest of all time. And she is.

Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff all play from the serve Serena crafted.

On Friday, Serena released herself from number 24, and made room to dream beyond the court.

“I’m ready to be a mom, explore a different version of Serena,” she told press after the last match. “Technically, in the world, I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”

Serena Williams with her daughter, Olympia, and husband, Alexis Ohanian, earlier this week. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Serena is expanding her greatness into family and into community. She’s trying for a second baby, making more investments into startups by marginalized founders, and finding new ways to grow.

We often box ourselves into one dream, and we when we achieve it, we dream no more, as if more would be too much for us to deserve.

We forget that victory, joy, love, and fulfillment exist elsewhere. We let age tell us who we should be, rather than rise to be who we are. We aspire to excellence within such narrow perimeters because the world’s shock at our excellence is limiting.

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To write your own story is the best kind of freedom, the championship we all want.

Are you surprised at yourself, with your level?

After the pause, she answered. Somewhere, a little Black girl’s beads clicked and clacked with magic and melody.

“I’m just Serena.”

And Serena Williams, the greatest athlete in the world, serves.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled Lori McNeil’s name. The Globe regrets the error.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.