Roger Federer 20, Novak Djokovic 21, Rafael Nadal 22, Serena Williams 23.

If statistics truly meant everything, as the conversation around who is tennis’ greatest of all time (GOAT) player implies, then on Grand Slam wins the world’s best player of the past two decades has not been any of the ‘Big Three’ that have dominated the men’s game.

Yet as Serena Williams goes into retirement today from the game she has at times completely dominated during her 27-year career, media on her legacy has for long been very different, focusing less on her game and more on her controversies.

University of Melbourne Gender Studies Professor Natalie Galea says much of Williams’ ‘divisive’ reputation is unfairly curated and unique to the women’s game.

 “Serena is a trailblazer. Her dominance, style, physicality, and race set her apart in the sport of tennis,” Galea tells Central News. “Yet one thing I always think of in relation to Serena is this interview with Andy Murray in 2017.

We have to wonder: can a woman really be the GOAT in the eyes of men and the media?

“A reporter asked him about the lack of success of US players in US tournaments, seemingly forgetting the achievements of various US women players, most obviously Serena.

“Despite her brilliance and her sister’s brilliance, they were overlooked. Their gender and race, I suspect, played a part in being overlooked. We have to wonder: can a woman really be the GOAT in the eyes of men and the media?”

With her loss at the US Open this morning (AEST) Williams, 40, leaves the game with one Grand Slam victory more than the prodigious Steffi Graf, but one short of equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, achieved before the Open era.

Regardless of this, William’s name will undoubtedly be etched into history as one of the greatest players – men or women – to pick up a racquet.

As a singles and doubles Olympic gold-medallist, golden-slam winner, multiple world-record holder, and world number one for 319 weeks, one of the few records unclaimed by the American will be the most Grand Slam titles.

This year she became only the fourth woman to win professional matches in her teens, 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.

Williams hits a tennis ball on a hard court

Williams at the 2013 US Open. Wikimedia Commons.

Alongside her sister Venus, the Williams sisters dominated the sport for the best part of a decade, achieving number one singles rankings in 2002 and doubles in 2010.

Their attacking style of play allowed both sisters to quickly take control of rallies using a powerful serve and forceful groundstrokes.

William’s legacy also reaches far off the court. She earned the status of cultural icon for challenging the status quo within the traditionally conservative realm of tennis.

From wearing bold outfits that highlighted her strength and defied dress codes, to women’s advocacy and racial activism, the outspoken figure has leveraged her platform to inspire.

But, rightly or wrongly, William’s legendary standing will also be marked by some controversy.

At times aggressive behaviour on court towards officials saw her labeled ‘unsportsmanlike’ and ‘intimidating’.

Williams was quoted threatening to ‘shove a tennis ball down a lineswoman’s throat’ during a 2009 US Open match dispute. Outbursts at the 2011 and 2018 US Open followed.

A friend, a superstar, and a wonderful person… We will miss her big time.

In 2009 she sported a T-shirt which read: “Are you looking at my titles?” And in 2013, in an apparent jab at rival Maria Sharapova for being boring, she told a press conference “she’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties”.

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said Williams had left an impact on the modern game spanning much further than the record books.

“Serena’s impact on tennis is immeasurable,” he said. “She has achieved so much, inspired so many, overcome challenges, and been a voice for change.

“A friend, a superstar, and a wonderful person, I wish our seven-time AO women’s champion the very best for the next chapter. We will miss her big time.”

As the tennis world moves on to find new stars and spectacles, Serena William’s dream run comes to an end. As one of the game’s greats, her contributions to the sport and her impact on 21st-century culture can’t be ignored and shouldn’t.

Image from Boss Tweed/Flickr: Williams at the 2011 US Open.