There are any number of ways to measure greatness for an athlete. The titles won, the records broken, the years played.
Even taken together, those would not be enough to do Serena Williams justice.
She will be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time for her triumphs on the court, of course. But she will be celebrated, and cherished, long after her career ends for the way she forced society to change how it sees and appreciates women, Black women in particular.
“I don’t particularly like to think about my legacy. I get asked about it a lot, and I never know exactly what to say,” Williams said, announcing in a first-person essay for Vogue published Tuesday that the U.S. Open will likely be her last tournament.
“But I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all,” Williams wrote.
“Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis,” Williams added. “I admire Billie Jean (King) because she transcended her sport. I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”
The beauty of sports is that nothing is absolute. No matter how dominant someone is, there is always the knowledge that, eventually, someone will come along to better their achievements and spark debate about who did it best. It might take a generation or two, but it will happen.
So when you think about the athletes who occupy a place in our collective consciousness, the ones we don’t simply respect but revere, you realize it is because they are so much more than their sport. Ali, Russell, Kareem, Billie Jean, LeBron, Serena, Simone.
They were, or are, all the greatest at what they did. But ultimately, sports was simply the vehicle through which they changed our world.
And that is why they are so precious to us.
Williams writes in the Vogue essay about her fierce competitiveness – “I want to be great. I want to be perfect. I know perfect doesn’t exist, but whatever my perfect was, I never wanted to stop until I got it right” – and how it served as the fuel for her 23 Grand Slam titles. But it was her belief in herself and refusal to accept anything that did not reflect that that has made her an icon.
For too long, the best women athletes were, if not interchangeable, remarkably similar: Dainty-seeming white women with lean, compact bodies. Williams is none of those things. She is a strong, curvy Black woman and, rather than trying to downplay her body, wears outfits that accentuate and celebrate it. (All hail the catsuit.)
She plays with such fierceness and force that her strokes are punctuated by grunts. She is demonstrative, pumping her fists after big points, screaming at herself, including the occasional obscenity, when she needs motivation, and yes, berating referees she feels are wrong.
She is an athlete, and she makes no apologies for the muscles, power and sweat that make her so.
Williams and her older sister Venus also rejected the notion that women are second-class. In anything. It was Venus Williams whose quiet but determined fight led Wimbledon to pay its men’s and women’s champions equal prize money beginning in 2007.
Serena Williams has been vocal about the double standard that exists when it comes to the GOAT debate, a diminishment that is familiar to pretty much every woman.
“If I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long time ago,” Williams said in a 2016 interview with Common for ESPN’s The Undefeated.
“I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being Black, so it’s a lot to deal with — and especially lately,” Williams said. “I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”
After Williams nearly died giving birth to her daughter, she made a point to spotlight the discrimination and inequities that persist in maternal health care for Black women. When Williams learned that just 2 percent of venture capital money was going to women, she started her own investment company.
She said in Vogue that Serena Ventures has now funded 16 companies valued at $1 billion or more, and that 78 percent of its portfolio are companies started by women or people of color.
“I kind of understood … that someone who looks like me needs to start writing the big checks,” Williams wrote. “Sometimes like attracts like. Men are writing those big checks to one another, and in order for us to change that, more people who look like me need to be in that position, giving money back to themselves.”
Williams' tennis career might be ending. But just as King, Ali and Russell did, she will continue to have influence and impact for many years to come.
The greatest athletes don't simply win. They challenge our assumptions and change our world for the better. There is no more fitting description for Serena Williams than that.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Serena Williams is the GOAT, but that isn't enough to describe her