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With four Olympic gold medals to her name, not to mention a record 22 singles and 14 doubles titles in Grand Slam events, Serena Williams can justifiably lay claim to being the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. Born in 1981 in Compton, Los Angeles, and one of five sisters, Serena was coached from a very early age by her father Richard, who was determined to take both her and elder sibling Venus to the top. Having first played in competitions from the age of five, the two sisters developed their prodigious games in the years that followed and turned professional in 1995, the start of their inexorable climb to the pinnacle of the women’s game.
Their Olympic adventure began at Sydney 2000, where they won the first of their three women’s doubles gold medals, and where Venus also claimed the singles title to go with the Wimbledon and US Open crowns she won that year. For her part, Serena had opened her Grand Slam account a year earlier, winning the 1999 US Open title at the age of 18.
The crowning moment of Serena’s Olympic career would eventually come at London 2012, by which time her list of career achievements had grown significantly and included a Career Grand Slam. As well topping the WTA Rankings on several occasions, she had five Australian Open and Wimbledon titles to her name and was also a three-time US Open winner and a one-time French Open champion.
The two siblings faced off in a number of Grand Slam finals in that time, the first of them coming at the 2001 US Open, a match Venus won. They then achieved the unique feat of contesting four consecutive Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, with Serena winning on each of those occasions. Though the younger of the two Williams sisters missed Athens 2004 through injury, she was back on the Olympic stage at Beijing 2008, where she and Venus collected a second women’s doubles gold after beating Spain’s Anabel Medina and Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-2 6-0.
Serena tuned up for London 2012 by winning her fifth Wimbledon title, an achievement that spurred her on in her bid for Olympic glory on the same courts just three weeks later, where she began what would be a commanding campaign with victory over Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. She then eased past Poland’s Urszula Radwanska, Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki and No1 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and arrived in the final without dropping a set and having only conceded 16 games. Waiting for her there was Russia’s Maria Sharapova, who had no answer to Williams’ power game and succumbed to a 6-0 6-1 defeat.
“I was so focused here,” said a jubilant Serena. “I remember I was serving and I was thinking: ‘Serena, this is your best chance to win a gold medal. You’re at Wimbledon. You’re on grass. You play great on grass. Pull it together! Just win this!’ And that’s what I thought about.”
In taking the singles title, Serena became the fourth player after Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Steffi Graf to complete the so-called Career Golden Slam, and she also became the first female player in the history of the game to win singles and doubles titles at the Olympics and all four major tournaments.
But that was not the end of her London 2012 exploits. A third Olympic doubles title came her way the day after her singles triumph, with the irrepressible Williams sisters, who did not lose a set in the competition, capping a flawless run to gold with a 6-4 6-4 victory over Czech duo Andrea Hlaváčková and Lucie Hradecká. “Crazy,” said Serena after her London double. “I'm always copying her. I forgot that she did it in Sydney and I do it here. We're the same doubles team. We just split this to singles, so it's cool.”
In making it four US Opens later that year, Serena reclaimed the No1 spot in the world rankings, a position she would hold for the next 186 weeks, through to September 2016. In the meantime, she won her second and third French Open crowns, her fifth and sixth US Opens, her sixth Australian Open and her sixth and seventh Wimbledon titles. In the process she took her tally of Grand Slam singles titles to 22, equalling Graf’s open-era record. It was during that golden period that she completed the second “Serena Slam” of her career, holding all four singles Slam titles simultaneously, a feat she had first achieved in 2002 and 2003.
Contemplating her bid for more Olympic gold in Brazil, Serena said: “Tennis players never really thought about winning the Olympics. You grew up thinking about winning grand slams, but now, with tennis in the Olympics, of course you think about it. The Olympics have had such a big impact on everyone. It will probably affect my schedule a little bit and I probably won't be playing as much because I will be in Rio. I am really looking forward to it.”
She tuned up for the 2016 Games by winning two more titles at Wimbledon, overcoming Germany’s Angelique Kerber in straight sets to land a seventh singles crown and then teaming up with Venus for a seventh doubles triumph at the All England Club. As well as taking their tally of Grand Slam doubles titles to 14, that victory maintained their record of never having lost a final in a major tournament, the Olympics included.
The siblings did not fare so well in Brazil a few weeks later, however, going out in the first round, while Serena went down to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 6-4 6-3 in the third round of the singles. “It’s obviously disappointing but, you know, she played really well and I think the better player won today,” said Serena afterwards. “It didn’t work out the way I wanted to, but at least I was able to make it to Rio. That was one of my goals.” Hampered by a shoulder injury, she went on to lose to the Czech Republic’s Karolína Plíšková in the semi-finals of the US Open and promptly called time on her 2016 season. Now 35, Serena has yet to put a date on her retirement and has designs on adding even more achievements to her already stellar career record.