Serena Williams' magnetic draw at US Open powerful enough to convert the cynical

This week has been all about Serena Williams and what she has given.

What she has given the game of tennis, what she has given so many female athletes, what she has given Black women.

Thankfully, since she strongly intimated in an essay for Vogue last month that this US Open will be her last, Serena has been celebrated, in much the same way she has played throughout her life: passionately, unapologetically, loudly.

In Cincinnati and Toronto, she was embraced even as she bowed out in the first round of each.

Her reception at those tournaments offered a hint of what was to come at Flushing Meadows, where she has been the artiste of Arthur Ashe, the empress of the evening matches, the queen of the (Billie Jean) King Tennis Center for 20 years.

Her opening match Monday night brought a huge crowd, to the stands and to the screens: a record-setting 29,402 fans attended the session, and on Wednesday that number was a shade under 30,000; nearly 2.3 million were tuned to ESPN (the audience peaked at 5 million), up from 1.75 million on Monday, and those don't include streaming numbers. Not to mention the ballooning ticket prices in New York — at least $500 to get in, according to the ESPN broadcast Thursday night — for her next singles match.

Serena and her sister Venus endured racism throughout much of their careers. It was never far away as two Black girls from Compton, California, who wore beads on their braids in their younger years, ascended the rankings in a sport that had long, intentionally been for white players. The Williams sisters did not come from wealth or a country club path. There were the frequent drug tests for Serena in particular, which she called discriminatory. Her power and physique were constantly criticized. Her occasional outbursts always scrutinized, a media contingent that for far too long was hostile (this was printed, proudly, by an Australian outlet in 2018).

It is all the more remarkable to tally up what the Williams sisters have accomplished, but also makes the reception Serena is receiving all the more sweeter.

It's on to Round 3 for Serena Williams in the US Open and she has a legion of fans behind her eager to give her goodbye flowers. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
It's on to Round 3 for Serena Williams in the US Open and she has a legion of fans behind her eager to give her goodbye flowers. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images) (Tim Clayton - Corbis via Getty Images)

In the same way she overpowered opponents, she overpowered tennis. Through an undeniable number of wins, through nearly unmatched longevity, through a ferocious will and her now-signature victory twirls, it's impossible not to appreciate her.

She has never suffered fools. She has never done the thing women have long been conditioned to do, which is shrink themselves, their ambitions or their achievements for the comfort of others. She has never not fought — for points, for matches, for respect, for equal pay, even for her own life when she felt doctors were not listening to her in the hours after she gave birth to daughter Olympia in 2017.

She has always loved herself out loud, her gorgeous curves and luscious lips and coiled hair, and that has resonated with Black women, who for so long have been told, implicitly and explicitly, that those things were unappealing.

Serena has given all of those things, to untold others, and to me.

And there's something else Serena has given me, just this week: a reminder of why I wanted to be a sports writer, why I decided at age 16 that it was the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up. After decades of being in press boxes where reporters can't cheer, I've gotten jaded. After the past couple of years of writing far too often about some of the uglier events and underbelly of sports (shining a light that, to be clear, must be shone), I soured on sports, the business part of it.

But on Wednesday night I was on our couch, first with my husband and younger children, and then by myself when they dispersed for their respective bedtimes.

I was pumping my fist. I was smacking the gray upholstered cushions. I was exhorting her to get back on track in the second set, then cheering and clapping and trying not to shout too loud lest I wake my young daughters through the third set — and was mostly successful, until Serena won and I yelled so loudly our 8-year-old came partway down the staircase to ask, "Mama, did Serena win?"

It had been a long time since I'd gotten to do that, to just sit and be a fan, with no laptop, no notebook, no deadline rapidly approaching. I was just watching a sport I love, played by an athlete I adore.

Serena plays again Friday night, in the third round against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic. It might be her final singles match.

If it isn't, the celebration rolls on. As Serena said Wednesday, she has nothing left to prove.

If it is, we can all say thank you, again, for all that she has given all of us.