This story on No. 12 athlete Serena Williams appears in the 20th anniversary issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
When it comes to the all-timers, it is common to assume a straight line of success and its accompanying accolades. Of course Jackie Robinson is recognized as one of the great profiles in courage. Of course Henry Aaron is revered as baseball royalty. Of course Serena Williams is accepted as the greatest tennis champion of her time.
There is a naïveté, and perhaps an unintentional insult, to this, because such a sentiment fails to appreciate the winding, fickle road to greatness. Robinson's courageousness was met by a baseball industry that largely exiled him. For the first two decades after Aaron's retirement in 1976, many inside baseball treated him as a bitter, angry black man always complaining about race. It wasn't until 1999, when commissioner Bud Selig created the Hank Aaron Award, that Aaron was reconnected with reverence to the next generation.
In 2011, Serena Williams completed her 16th year on tour. She had won 13 singles majors, 12 in doubles, plus two Olympic golds. Thirteen majors in 16 years, yet there was a word attached to her, harsh and inaccurate but persistent: underachiever.
It was a backhanded compliment -- a testament to her ability with a built-in criticism for not winning more; for being injured; for that stretch of 20 majors between 2004 and 2008, after her sister Yetunde's murder in 2003, when injuries and grief understandably contributed to a drop-off; for being a modern athletic superstar who diversified her visibility through commercial Hollywood interests. And never forget how routinely she and her family were so casually accused of committing the greatest crime in sports: match fixing whenever she and sister Venus met.
She was respected but not always beloved after incidents at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011, the former putting her on a two-year probation for threatening a lineswoman in a semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters. Williams was also 30 in 2011, the graveyard for most tennis players' careers, and it must be remembered that rather than universal celebration of the great Serena's accomplishments, it was fashionable to emphasize what she wasn't, the opportunities lost to time.
Then, two months after The Low Point -- losing to Virginie Razzano at the 2012 French Open, her only first-round defeat at a major -- came the marathoner's kick removing all doubts that she was the greatest women's player of all time, and possibly the most dominant tennis player of all time. Williams won Wimbledon in 2012 with 102 aces in seven matches. Two months later, she won the U.S. Open. Suddenly with 15 major wins, the magical 18th -- held jointly by the greatest rivals in tennis history, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova -- was in sight. She tied them by beating her friend Caroline Wozniacki to win her third straight U.S. Open in 2014, avenging the bad blood at Flushing Meadows, all at 32.
The mountaintop drew closer: Beating Maria Sharapova, Lucie Safarova and Garbine Muguruza in 2015 gave her four straight slams for the second time in her career, 21 overall. From her defeat of Wozniacki to the '17 Australian Open, when she passed Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 majors, Williams went 64-4 in grand slams, winning six of them.
Several journeys culminated when she surpassed Graf, while pregnant, her sister Venus (whom she defeated in the final) with her on the podium. The under- achiever narrative was vanquished. Serena's march to immortality -- a staggering run of 10 majors in five years past age 30 -- was achieved. She did not merely win; she won with women under attack by male players for their landmark victory of equal pay. She won when female players were being shamed for adding muscle at the risk of being "unfeminine." She won in a time of Ferguson, when athletes were suddenly being asked to return to the heritage of activism of Muhammad Ali and Robinson and speak publicly on wide-ranging social issues. She won while carrying the daughter she would bring into the world on Sept. 1, 2017.
She won on so many levels that Serena Williams achieved her greatest accomplishment: Her most significant victories no longer had anything to do with tennis.
Howard Bryant's latest book, "The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism," goes on sale May 8.