Letter to a legend: Watching Serena Williams for the last time

I would wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get a chance to watch Williams play

overhead shot of a woman waiting for the ball to be served.
She was a symbol of Black excellence and transformed the sport of tennis. PHOTO: Renith R / Unsplash

By: C Icart, Staff Writer

Serena Williams won her first major title at the US Open in September 1999. She was 17, and I was six-months-old. By the time I started watching tennis with my parents, Williams’ reputation at the top of her sport was clearly cemented, and I hadn’t known anything else. I quickly became a fan of the woman who is widely regarded as the greatest of all time with 23 Grand Slam titles. Her power and flawless outfits captivated me. Reading the racist and sexist comments online about her build angered me. Her perseverance, despite the hate, motivated me. Growing up, I would set alarms at odd hours just to be able to watch her Grand Slam matches, regardless of the time zone she was playing in. My parents would laugh as I prepared to watch her defend her Australian Open titles at 3:30 a.m. 

When Williams announced she would be “evolving” away from tennis, the news hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never known a time when she wasn’t playing professionally. I intended on watching the US Open anyways, but I wrote down Williams’ matches in my calendar to make sure I wouldn’t miss a thing. I no longer live with my parents, but I texted them as soon as the match started to ensure they were watching. Watching Serena together had always been our thing, and that first-round match may have been the last time we had the chance to do so. 

Before she even stepped onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, a lovely tribute video narrated by Oprah played. And there she was, in all black, covered in sparkles. The outfit was custom-made and had six layers to represent her six US Open titles. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as many Black people in the crowd of a tennis match. Even when I briefly looked away from my screen, I knew when she won a point because the crowd would erupt in cheers. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Williams, now a 40-year-old mother, who hadn’t played much leading up to the tournament. But she won. In the second round, it happened again. My mom called me, and my dad texted me. Here we were, over 20 years later, still in awe. Suddenly, it was the third round. She lost the first set against Ajla Tomljanović and fought back during the second. My eyes were glued to the screen as I watched her save five match points. She was not going down without a fight. In the end, Tomljanović defeated her. It was bittersweet to watch her do her signature twirl one last time, but all good things must come to an end. Watching her has always made me feel like I was part of something bigger, and I wasn’t the only one. A record-breaking 4.8 million viewers watched her last match at the US Open. Thank you for everything, Serena, and may the next chapter of your life be everything you want it to be. You’re a legend.