Section by section, the noise built, first in anticipation, then in celebration, a cascade of sound, a roar really, rolling from the upper deck, section by section, all of it celebrating the arrival of a player at center court of the U.S. Open tennis championships.
This wasn’t any old player, burdened by an also-ran ranking of 605. This was a special player and you could tell by the celebrities assembled for her arrival.
There was former president Bill Clinton and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Look over there. Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are watching. Queen Latifah and Spike Lee, too. And Gladys Knight, although without the Pips.
This was a Who’s Who crowd and exactly what you would expect for a special event. And make no mistake. Serena Williams, in what is likely to be her final tournament, is a special event.
It was appropriate for Williams to be playing at Flushing Meadows for it was there that her brilliant career as the dominant player in women’s tennis began.
Serena was 17, just one month into competing on the tour when she came out of nowhere to beat No. 1 Martina Hingis and win the Open championship in 1999. How significant was it? Well, consider that she was the first African American since Althea Gibson in 1956 to win a Grand Slam singles title.
It was just the beginning.
The Williams’ sisters, Serena and Venus, dominated women’s tennis for quite some time. There was a stretch of four straight Grand Slam finals when Serena defeated Venus to complete what became known as the Serena Slam, holding all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.
Oh, what a time that was. Serena rode a blister of a serve, the kind you’d expect to see in a men’s match, to the top of women’s tennis. She changed the game and kept racking up Grand Slam titles.
There was 2008 when injuries sent her tumbling in the rankings and she arrived at Flushing as a wild card. She never dropped a set in that tournament and claimed her third U.S. Open crown.
In 2012, she was two points away from elimination against Victoria Azarenka in the Open final and reached into her reservoir of shots to win the last four games and claim her 15th Grand Slam crown. Then, a year later, she beat Azarenka again, this time in straight sets, a sort of punctuation point in their rivalry.
She owns 23 Grand Slam titles, six of them at the Open. And that is why the thunder of roars rolled down around her as she took center court in Flushing one last time.
No one ever deserved it more.