Serena Williams' latest much-hyped quest for her 24th major title came to an abrupt and anticlimactic halt on Wednesday when she withdrew from the French Open because of a left Achilles injury just hours before her second-round match against Tsvetana Pironkova.
For now, that is.
Assuming the 2021 season takes place as normal -- and Serena chooses to make the trip to Australia to start the new year -- the conversation will start back up again. We will collectively speculate if this will finally be the major where she'll tie Margaret Court's long-standing women's singles record. And if she doesn't hoist the trophy, the cycle will begin anew for the next Grand Slam. If she were to win, the talk would shift to her drive for 25, and fans and analysts would wonder if, and when, she could pass Court's mark.
But honestly, does it really matter?
Serena, at 39, doesn't need to win another title -- heck, even another match -- to cement her status as the best ever in the sport.
Although it would be an amazing feat for her to win 24, 25 or more major titles, her legacy should not be conflated by a number. Instead of being enveloped in what she hasn't yet achieved, we should consider all she has done -- 73 career titles, including 23 at Slams, 14 major doubles titles (and a perfect finals record) with her sister Venus Williams, two mixed doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 319 weeks at world No. 1.
Since returning after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, in September 2017, Serena has played in four major finals. Yes, she emerged winless in those attempts, but to produce that consistent level of dominant tennis on four occasions in two seasons, she should be celebrated, not critiqued. This coronavirus-affected year will mark the first time since 2006 that Serena didn't play in at least one major final -- a 13-year run. Yes, even during 2017, the year she gave birth, she played (and won) in the Australian Open. Less than 10 months after giving birth, she was playing in another one.
"Honestly she's like a living icon," US Open champion Naomi Osaka said during the tournament in New York earlier this month, where Serena lost in the semifinals. "I would not be here without her."
Serena has been an inspiration to so many along the way -- paving a path for new generations of Black players. The Williams sisters' influence was evident during the US Open when there were 13 Black women in the draw, including 12 from the United States.
Serena's willingness to speak up has made her a revered figure in tennis and beyond. She and Venus have consistently fought for equal prize money for women in the sport. Together they have furthered the trail started by Billie Jean King and the "Original Nine," making tennis the premier sport for women with inarguably the most financial opportunity. Nine of the top 10 women on Forbes' list of highest-paid female athletes in 2020 are tennis players. Serena made the list at No. 2 thanks to her winnings on the court and for her many endorsements off it. Serena also reinvested some of her own fortune into helping other female athletes, when she, husband Alexis Ohanian and her young daughter became part of the ownership group of an NWSL franchise earlier this year.
"She's probably inspired so many people in the U.S. and has done so much for our sport by just getting so many people to play our sport, because so many people want to be like her," said American Taylor Fritz after his win over Radu Albot in the second round on Wednesday.
Even Roger Federer, a 20-time major champion, has called her "one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time." Unfortunately in our "What have you done for me lately?" culture, it seems one is only as good as their last result. Very few people win a major title, but Serena has won 23 and yet some quantify her worth on the one she still hasn't won.
Court's record is certainly incredible, but it should be mentioned that 13 of those titles came before the start of the Open era in 1968, when only amateur players were allowed to compete in Grand Slam events. Not to mention, Court won 11 trophies at the Australian Open, which, due to its geographic remoteness at that time, didn't always draw the best talent from around the world.
This is not to take away from what Court achieved, but it has never felt like an accurate comparison. One has to wonder if some of the pressure for Williams to tie or top Court's mark is more related to her controversial views off the court. Serena, who has been an indelible champion both on and off the court, could indeed reach the elusive No. 24, but it should carry little weight in how we remember her career when it comes to a close.
Thankfully for tennis fans, there is still time to appreciate Serena's greatness.
"I love playing tennis, obviously," she said Wednesday. "I love competing. I love being out here.
"It's my job. It's been my job. And I'm pretty good at it still, so until I feel that I'm not good at it, then I'll be, like, 'OK.' And I'm so close to some things, so I feel like I'm almost there. I think that's what keeps me going."