As Serena Williams winds down her career – which is expected to end at next fortnight’s US Open – Australian tennis stars Sam Stosur, Alicia Molik, Casey Dellacqua and Nicole Pratt share their recollections of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Stosur holds the distinction of being the only Australian player to defeat Serena Williams in a professional singles match.
And she did so three times; firstly in Stanford in 2009, before back-to-back Grand Slam victories over Williams at Roland Garros in 2010 and the 2011 US Open – the latter victory coming in the final.
Stosur finished her singles career with a 3-8 head-to-head record against the legendary American.
"My first memory of playing her, I don't know whether it was the first time we played, (but it was) when I played her in Sydney in 2009 [editor’s note: it was their second meeting, after the Beijing 2008 Olympics]. I remember having a match point. I remember talking about this with Dave Taylor, who was coaching me at the time, about the match point; I just tried to hit an ace or something, because I was obviously nervous and just didn't want to play a point, and I went for a big serve and I think I actually double faulted. That was a big learning curve, because the discussion was: even in that situation, still do what you've been doing, don't just try to go for a cheap (option) like 'oh I just want to hit a serve and it will all be finished'. I remember that match in Sydney pretty well for the most part because of exactly that. For the next little while, any time I was playing those big players, that match would come to mind.
"(At Roland Garros in the 2010 quarterfinals I hit) one of the best backhands I've ever hit in my life, late in the third set, to break her again to serve for the match. If I've ever tried to YouTube matches to try and find information, these points always come up and it always brings back the memories, like, geez that was some good tennis. And it was a great match.
"She beat me pretty easily on multiple occasions; I remember she thrashed me 0 and 2 in Montreal one year. She absolutely killed me in some, and then obviously I won a few, and then others we had some really close battles. I just always kind of enjoyed playing her. Her game obviously was just sometimes way too good, but I felt like she didn't necessarily like playing me... something about my style matched up relatively well against her on certain occasions. I enjoyed that time to see, one, how you match up against one of the legends of the sport, and two, you just played – it was just next point, next point, next point. You just knew you had to be on. I always found that about playing Serena actually genuinely enjoyable. Because you had to play well to win.
"Her serve is her biggest weapon. First serve especially. Sometimes you just had to even guess... sometimes it was just way too good. When she was serving really well, there was always that pressure on you to serve well, because she could run through service games super quick. That pressure would kind of build. It's funny, it's not like she hits the ball as hard as anything, or harder than anyone else in the world, but she can hit the ball really deep, she can obviously absolutely smash it. But I think it's just the constant feeling of pressure. Part of this comes from her aura and what she'd done before; even if you won the first set, you're like, oh, I'm waiting... no, it's definitely not over. She looks down and out, she'll win some long rally or hit some ridiculous shot and win the point, and she gives out a huge come on and scream, and all of a sudden you're like, oh, this is danger time for the opponent. You can just see her coming. You just knew she was always going to fight and be competitive.
"She really kind of transcended the sport. You don't want to always package Venus and Serena together, but their story is absolutely incredible. They grew the sport. Serena's inner belief that she could be the greatest is phenomenal. And she absolutely lived up to that. I think where she's taken the sport, with the power, the strength, the glamour, the entertainment... she's a global superstar. I've played in the same era as that, and played with her, and that's pretty cool. When she does finish, tennis is for sure gonna miss her. No matter where she goes, she brings people in.
"Honestly, I would love her to win the US Open, and go out like that. It would be the absolute end fairytale."
Molik first faced Williams in 1999 as a qualifier in Miami; it was Serena’s very next match after her stunning victory over Steffi Graf in the Indian Wells final.
Williams beat the Aussie 6-2 6-3, part of a 16-match winning streak that ended in the Miami final.
Molik would go on to play Williams three more times; twice at the Hopman Cup (2003 and 2008) and at Wimbledon in 2007, a match the former world No.8 discussed when Williams announced her return at the All England Club earlier this year.
"I first saw Serena on TV. I was only a young teenager playing tennis, I might have been 12 or 13, and Serena and Venus were starting to play WTA events.
"My recollection of Serena is that she carried herself with a lot of grace. I've played her, I've watched her, I've commentated on her… she was an incredible competitor. She just found a way to come up with big serves, big returns, when it really counted her whole career, which is why she's got as many Slams as she does.
"At her best she was untouchable. Untouchable on return, off her serve; you just constantly felt – which you don't really feel against any other player – threatened on every shot. You're scared to serve, in a sense, because you know anything can be belted for a winner. Even returning, Serena in particular had a serve you could not pick. She's probably the perfect example of beautiful tennis action with her service motion. And she'd place her ball-toss in the same spot every single time. There's not many players I feel like on the women's tour who are so consistent with their motion and placement of their ball toss. She just had this preciseness about her serve, which added to her power and efficiency.
"And she's really theatrical too – I love that she gives a bit of herself. You can see on her face what she's feeling… That's why I think a lot of people love Serena, because she does let you in a little bit.
"If anyone had pressure, it was Serena. All these years, on the court, off the court, in the press, at tournaments. I think when players feel like are feeling the pinch, they only have to think about someone like that; the best in the world who's had a lot of pressure on her shoulders. Whether she's shown it or not, that's irrelevant – she managed all of that really well in her career, I think.
"I always say, relish every moment you get to see her play live or on TV, because it won't be forever, and there will not be another Serena, ever, in our lifetime. Because she's incredibly smart, she's articulate, she's a show-woman, she has a great game, being a trailblazer for tennis and women's sport around the world... There's so much to Serena. She's so many more things than just a tennis player, which other champions in the past haven't been. So that's what sets her apart. It's pretty amazing. It takes a pretty unique person to fill those shoes.
"She's come of age. Her best tennis is behind her. It made me think that she's come full-circle and the end might be really near. She deserved to step away from tennis soon, because she's given it everything.”
While Dellacqua never played Williams in singles, she did face her three times in doubles, most recently in the semifinals of Australian Open 2009.
In that match, Serena and partner Venus beat Dellacqua and Francesca Schiavone 6-0 6-2.
Dellacqua first encountered Serena across the net in doubles in the second round of Australian Open 2003, when partnering Nicole Sewell.
"I think when you play Serena... you can't help but reflect on that at multiple times throughout your career, because it's such a moment. Well it was for me, being quite young then, and facing (her and Venus) in doubles at the AO. That feeling of walking on the court, even back then you could sense that Serena was going to be one of the greatest to have ever played our game. In the moment, it felt intimidating, it felt exhilarating and exciting, and now I reflect and I think what a privilege it was to actually be able to say I shared the court with her.
"She's had a very big peak throughout her career, but particularly back then when I was playing her, she really was at the peak of her career. And she just was unbeatable. It was almost like she had beaten us before we even did the coin toss. She had just built that reputation.
"I always idolised athletic and strong women. And I think for me, seeing Serena's presence out on court, and knowing what she was physically capable of, was always going to put her in good stead. She had the most athletic body for being a tennis player, and to have longevity in the sport as well. You face her serve, and you face her biggest weapons, you can't help but think, gosh, when you've got a serve like that, and you can walk up to the line and really hit your spots, and you look at her mental strength as well, when you just combined those three factors – the physicality, technical and tactical – for me she was just always going to be one of the greatest to have ever played. If not the greatest.
"She built this reputation for being one of the best competitors and... when you're playing someone like Serena, you know you have to be on your A-game. When the draw came out, it didn't matter who (she played), you would just never not back her. I think that was just from years and years of her putting herself out there, being a great competitor, and then just creating that reputation around Serena Williams.
"She's always been super lovely and smiley and friendly, and would always say hello – even now in my media work, she's always very lovely.
"In terms of me just being a tennis fan, there's no doubt Serena has transcended the sport. I grew up through the era of a lot of different players, but for me, Serena Williams was the one leading the pack for so many years. I will miss her competitiveness, determination and spirit out on the court.
"The fact that she won the Australian Open (in 2017) while she was pregnant... and even what she achieved after she had Olympia, is actually pretty crazy, to be honest, making that many (major) finals. For me, obviously I'm disappointed for her just as much as I'm sure she will be that she never got to win another one, but having been through childbirth (myself) as well, the fact that she did that, is actually incredible. I think we can't underestimate, again, her determination coming back from Olympia, and all of that, and knowing what she achieved. It's pretty incredible.”
When 16-year-old Williams made her US Open debut in 1998, Pratt was her very first opponent at Flushing Meadows.
Pratt pushed Williams to three sets in that entertaining clash at Louis Armstrong Stadium, but lost her subsequent four meetings with Williams in straight sets, the most recent coming in the 2002 Tokyo quarterfinals.
"My claim to fame is losing to Serena in her first US Open match (laughter). Obviously there was a lot of hype about Serena, because Venus had already hit the scene and done incredibly well, and then you had the little sister who Venus always said was going to be better than she was. So it was sort of hard to believe, because Venus herself was extraordinary. I guess I was ready for the match, in terms of knowing that she would be a quality opponent.
“I can remember the match... I feel like she was one of the greatest competitors ever. And ferocious on court. Her superior physicality, even at that stage, her very first US Open, she was an intimidating figure. Even back then had a very good serve, I think that's held her in good stead throughout her whole career.
"I think over time she became physically stronger and upped the ante in terms of physicality on court. Her serve got bigger and better and she was able to hit her spots more consistently. Probably tidied up her game a little bit. Probably had better understanding of her power. It became harder and harder to win points against her.
"One thing I do know, and that I'm proud about, because I know she said this to a couple of people, she said she respects my competitiveness, in terms of I went into each and every match, including against her, thinking that I could win. Very much a mutual respect there, which is nice.
"I'd be lying if I said that I thought she would play 20 more years (after our last match in 2002), because that's extraordinary for any player.
"I felt like she became more exciting towards the end of her career, because you never knew what you were going to get, you didn't know what to expect. It was: how's she going to be playing? Where's her physicality at? And then the talk of the town of every Slam was: is she going to surpass Margaret Court? So there was always a headline. And probably that's what we'll miss – we'll miss the headlines, we'll miss talking about the records, and what could have been.”