Why 2018 could be Serena Williams' most impactful year yet

Whether in moments of joy or sadness, Serena Williams the person was far more accessible in 2018. JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

When Serena Williams looks back on her 2018 season, she just might find it to be the most meaningful campaign of her career. After a 14-month maternity leave, she returned to the court this past March a wife, a mother and the winningest player in tennis. Over seven tournaments, she recovered her footwork and lightning-fast serve, donned a Marvel-worthy catsuit at the French Open and reached the final at Wimbledon and in New York. But it was the impact she made off the court that set her apart.

This year, Super Serena stepped into her powers and used her voice to give the public a window into her fears, her conflict and her pain. In doing so, the 23-time Grand Slam champ provided herself with an alter ego: a relatable, flawed everymom who cried when she made the decision to stop breastfeeding, missed her daughter, Olympia's, first steps while she was at work and admitted to having days when she felt she wasn't cutting it as a mom.

Williams, 37, had struggled plenty during her 20-year career, and time and again she hurdled tragedy, heartache and setbacks to win titles, and she did so with the quiet support of a close network of family and friends. But this season, she had boundless support from fans who followed her to tournaments and on social media. Women -- and men -- who once believed they had nothing in common with a superstar athlete felt connected to a mom who suddenly seemed a lot like them, whether or not they were parents themselves. It's difficult to relate to Superwoman without also knowing the human she becomes when she takes her cape off at night. And for much of her life, Williams had reserved her private persona for a very select few.

For more than a year between 2015 and 2017, as Williams chased Steffi Graf's Open era record, I interviewed more than 20 people closest to her -- her mother, sisters, coaches, competitors and business partners -- in an attempt to uncover who she is away from tennis and compile an oral history of her life. With each interview, those who know her best described Williams with words I had rarely heard used about her by television commentators and sportswriters: "shy" and "insecure," "awkward," "silly," "funny" and "a goofball." I asked them each why fans and reporters didn't have access to the same Serena they described to me.

Their answers were simple: fear. "She was trying to protect herself," her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, reiterated to me two days before this year's US Open final. "That's something you can understand for someone who has her status." And for an athlete who, from the time she played in her first professional tennis match at age 14, has been scrutinized for every choice she makes, from her outfits to her hairstyles to her off-the-court interests.

But slowly, and with the help of social media, Williams began to chisel away the wall. She joined Snapchat, posted videos of herself doing splits, dancing in front of a mirror and singing karaoke at dinner with friends. She spoke out about police violence against African Americans in an emotional post on Facebook, and continued to be vocal on the topic of equal pay. Her followers -- she currently has 10 million on Instagram and 10.9 million on Twitter -- responded by asking for more.

We don't need our heroes to be flawless queens all the time. We want to know that they have tough days like we do, that their insecurities look a lot like ours. When they openly discuss their struggles alongside their successes, they provide us with examples of how to overcome adversity and make us believe that we, too, are capable of greatness.

"Once she started to open up, what she got back encouraged her to open up even more," Mouratoglou said. "This year, the connection with the crowd was at another level. People feel close to her and give to her, and she gives back because she feels their love. When you feel love, you want to give love."

Over the past year, Williams became a voice for mothers and future mothers on the WTA Tour, for women dealing with postpartum depression -- Williams said she prefers the term "postpartum emotions" -- and for African American women who are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women and often feel ignored, dismissed and even chastised by their doctors when they speak up. Williams had to demand treatment from her doctors and, in doing so, likely saved her own life and the lives of women who read the account of her delivery and will feel empowered to speak up in the future.

Williams divulged the details of her emergency C-section and the three surgeries that followed when she developed blood clots in her lungs. Knowing her body and the signs of pulmonary embolism, a condition with which she has a history, Williams urged her doctors to administer a CT scan of her chest, which revealed clots that might have been missed had she not been so persistent. She continued to share her experiences as she returned to the practice courts, won and lost her first matches, and experienced the joys and exhaustion of becoming a working mom.

After Williams lost against Angelique Kerber in the final at Wimbledon in July -- only four months after returning to the game -- she choked back tears as she told the crowd, "For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today." For once, Williams was competing for more than her place in history; she was playing for the fans with whom she'd created a connection. They were supporting her at a time when she needed them most, and she wanted them to know she felt their love.

In that moment, and all year long, it wasn't about whether Williams won or lost, it was that she was playing the game. That she was willing to put herself out there, set bold goals, risk failing so openly, and ask for support when she did made the public embrace her in a way that at times felt protective and motherly in its intensity. "We love you, Serena!" they responded in chorus after her Wimbledon speech.

That relationship came to a head during the US Open final against Naomi Osaka in September. When chair umpire Carlos Ramos handed Williams a rare coaching penalty in the second set, Williams believed he had questioned her character and integrity, and that the penalty could be interpreted as her being called a cheater in front of the very people who had supported her in her comeback. She needed them to know, needed her daughter to know, wanted Ramos to understand, "I'd rather lose than cheat," she said.

When the conflict escalated and Ramos docked Williams a game for calling him a "thief," the crowd largely reacted in defense of Williams, responding with a refrain of boos that sadly will be remembered as the soundtrack to Osaka's first Grand Slam win. In protecting Williams, her fans forgot about the young woman on the other side of the net who had played a brilliant match against her idol. That wasn't the kind of love Williams wanted to receive, so again she used her voice to silence the boos.

But not everyone came to Williams' defense. In the days after the match, many people who had once praised her began to question her behavior. Headlines depicted her interactions with Ramos as a "shocking tirade" and a "furious rant," and some said she "exploded" with fury. Perhaps that is the flip side of transparency: By bringing people in for a closer look, by making herself accessible, Williams has made people feel as if they know her, and in turn know how she felt and how she should have reacted that day.

Over the following weeks, Williams didn't respond to the criticism. Instead, she continued to call attention to what she believes is inherent sexism within the sport. She returned to Twitter to share her anxiety when Olympia doesn't sleep and the results of her daughter's one-year checkup. As part of a Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign to remind women to perform regular self-exams, Williams recorded a version of The Divinyls hit, "I Touch Myself." In the video, which has been viewed millions of times online, Williams stands topless in front of a camera, her arms crossed in front of her chest, and sings beautifully and fearlessly without expression. It is yet another reminder Williams will continue to use her voice in support of others, no matter how far outside her comfort zone she has to step in order to do it.

"Her willingness to be so open was her choice and people tell me they feel motivated by what she's done," her sister, Venus, told me shortly before the start of the US Open. "Serena is going to continue to impact lives for many years in ways she never imagined."

And that impact will have little to do with how many titles she accumulates by the time she decides to hang up her racket and wear her cape full time.