Serena Williams has spent more than half her life in our homes and on our TVs. She’s home again this week at the U.S. Open, and the numbers keep adding up.
The buildup for this tournament, and for every major event the past three years, is that she’s trying for her 24th major championship, tying the record held by Margaret Court. It’s a fake goal, really. Nobody thinks of Court as the greatest of all time, anyway.
But numbers do define things in sports. And the one Williams reached Monday, when she moved into the quarterfinals by beating Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, is actually even more amazing than a 24th major will be.
Williams won her 100th match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. That is mind-blowing. It’s one of the most amazing — and overlooked — numbers in sports history. To win the tournament, you have to win seven matches. So the shortest amount of time it would take to win 100 matches — 100 divided by 7, with nearly every match put on the stadium court — is 15 years. And Williams has won only six titles.
She has had 23 straight years of mostly consistent excellence on one court, starting with her first win at Ashe in 1998.
What athletes are at the top of their sport for a quarter of a century?
Tom Brady, yes. But he won his first Super Bowl in the 2001 season. Serena won the U.S. Open in 1999. Even Roger Federer won his first major in 2004.
Williams has changed so much from the time she arrived as a kid with beads in her hair. Now, at 38, she brings her kid to the matches.
Way back when, she was heavily criticized — by me, included — for not staying focused enough. She was into fashion and always made a statement with her clothes at majors. She went to school to learn how to be a manicurist.
I don’t really need to go through all of her ups and downs, but it was frustrating watching her lose matches on purpose at times when she didn’t feel like playing. When it wasn’t a major.
It seemed as if she were distracted and could have won so many more majors if she’d have just focused. Williams said she would burn out if she were all tennis, all the time.
Turns out, she was right. No one lasts this long in tennis.
She and her sister, Venus, have changed the tennis world, too. You see so many more black players on tour now.
And in Serena’s case, she changed the standard for girls’ body image, redefining things to show that big, muscular women can look fit, strong, sexy, healthy. Early on, we saw as she went through what so many teenage girls face: She talked about looking into a mirror without confidence in her body.
Now, with nearly a quarter of a century playing at this high of a level, winning big trophies and big checks, she has countered the pop culture messages sent to young girls that you have to be a size zero.
Others, including Ronda Rousey, followed. But Serena set the standard.
One hundred wins on Ashe. It’s unreal. She has had injuries. She had a baby. At some point, you just have to have bad days, sick days, injured days, dark days.
Williams has had all of those, but the numbers just keep adding and adding and adding.
She has reached her 53rd major championship quarterfinal. Think about that: There are only four majors a year. She has now reached the quarters of the U.S. Open — the final eight — 17 times.
Williams has had difficulty getting this 24th major. It’s no guarantee that she ever will. But it doesn’t matter. She’s not chasing Court.
Court is from a different era — the 1960s and early `70s — when players weren’t measuring greatness the way they are now. It wasn’t all about majors back then, but also about winning tournaments at all, and staying No. 1 as long as possible, and being No. 1 at the end of the year. Any number of things. Back then, lots of players didn’t bother playing the Australian Open. Court won 11 of them.
Williams is already the greatest of all time, though there is a strong argument for Steffi Graf.
So she’s in the quarterfinals again. She is still amazing. But she’s not the lock in big matches that she used to be. She doesn’t scare her opponents the way she used to.
Still, 101, 102 and 103 are there waiting for her.