In women's tennis, the '00s were Serena Decade
Serena Williams considered skipping the 2000 Australian Open to attend design classes, then decided to play. She showed up for her first match of the year wearing red shoes, which made it easier to see her eight foot faults. She committed 55 unforced errors before outlasting a wild-card opponent ranked 261st in three sets.
Quietly, the Serena Decade had begun.
There were plenty of distractions, bold fashion statements, swing-from-the-heels groundstrokes and close calls to come. Through it all, Williams kept on the way she started — winning.
The decade will end with Williams No. 1 in the rankings and high on the list of tennis' greatest champions. She has won 11 major titles, the most of any active woman, and inspired the term "Serena Slam" when she swept four majors in a row in 2002-03.
With unprecedented power and underrated agility, she has transformed the way the women's game is played. Her flair for theatrics and compelling back story brought new fans to the sport, which helped the WTA Tour achieve new levels of popularity. The U.S. Open final became a prime-time attraction, and Williams became a magazine cover celebrity.
"Serena has redefined women in sports," says Arlen Kantarian, former U.S. Tennis Association CEO for professional tennis. "This is an athlete who has that very, very unique combination of grit and glamour, power and grace, like no other athlete I've come across in the last decade — or two, for that matter."
Williams began and ends the '00s at the top of her sport. She was a precocious 18-year-old and the reigning champion of the U.S. Open — her first major title — when she took the court in those red shoes in Melbourne in January 2000. This year she won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the year-end tour championships.
Her earnings in 2009 totaled $6.5 million, which shattered the tour record. Prize money has more than doubled since Williams joined the tour in 1998, and her career earnings of $28.5 million are a record for a female athlete.
"When you think about what she has done for tennis, it's kind of the same thing as when you think about Michael Jordan in basketball," Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown says.
In the same way Jordan inspired kids to pick up a basketball, Williams' impact on tennis participation may be evident for years. Young fans love her high-wire rallies and fearless strokes. They love her knack for coming from behind and saving her best for the clutch.
And they love the way Serena and her older sister Venus broke down barriers.
"I don't know how many women of color have picked up rackets because of Serena, but more African-American girls are playing tennis at the highest level of juniors than I can ever remember," says Patrick McEnroe, who supervises player development for the USTA. "Clearly you're seeing a lot more interest in tennis from that community."
To become the best player in women's tennis, Williams had to become the best in her family. She and Venus learned the game as inner-city grade-schoolers on the crumbling courts of Compton, Calif., where their father declared they would become champions.
Venus was first to No. 1, became dominant at Wimbledon and has won seven major titles. Then Serena overtook her sister as their awkward but compelling rivalry played out on stages around the world. Serena has won six of their eight sibling showdowns in Grand Slam finals, most recently at Wimbledon this year.
What does Venus think about Serena as a candidate for Athlete of the Decade?
"She has won so many championships with hard work and perseverance," Venus says. "I think she's at the top of the list, although that may be a biased opinion."
Serena says she's shocked even to be considered.
"I've never been so presumptuous to think of myself as the best athlete or anything like that," she says. "I'd vote for me. But I'll probably be the only one."
Not so. Serena has support even from athletes in other sports.
"I hope she wins," Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett says. "She has revolutionized women's tennis. ... She's definitely a diva, in her own way. But she does it in a very, very classy, quaint way. I'm all for her."
Other supporters include Kim Clijsters, who upset Williams en route to this year's U.S. Open title.
"Absolutely I think Serena deserves the consideration," Clijsters says. "Serena's very compelling to watch. She's an amazing athlete and one of the best competitors the sport has ever seen in the professional era."
In the final game of her Open loss to Clijsters in September, Williams threw a tantrum that drew condemnation and a major fine - but also stirred fond memories of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, whose stormy personalities were big attractions.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin appreciates Williams' appeal even though they've feuded in the past.
"She's had a huge impact over the world because she is really charismatic," Henin says. "Strong personalities — that's what we need. And that's what she has. I think it's good for the game, and we need more of that."
Williams has often left tennis fans wanting more, wavering in her devotion to the game and skipping tournaments for weeks at a stretch. "It's hard to call her an underachiever, but in my mind she could have been better," Martina Navratilova says.
Williams has sometimes acknowledged a preference to focus on her clothing line, acting, shopping or talking on the phone. While that attitude can annoy serious tennis fans, many love her multifaceted personality.
It takes more than winning Wimbledon to become identifiable by only a single name, like Pele, Magic or Elvis. Serena has done that.
"From Johannesburg to Sydney to Paris to Los Angeles to New York to London to Japan," Kantarian says, "the impact she has made on sport has been extraordinary."
The Associated Press is asking editors to vote on their choice for Athlete of the Decade. Their selection will be announced Dec. 16. Ahead of that pick, the AP is profiling some of the leading candidates.