NEW YORK — Serena Williams lost to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic at the U.S. Open on Friday night, likely marking the end of arguably the sport’s greatest Grand Slam career, but her title as the biggest earner in women’s tennis history will remain for years to come.
Since turning professional in 1995, Williams has amassed a mind-boggling $94.6 million in prize money, more than twice the second name on the list, which happens to be her older sister Venus, with $42.3 million.
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She will pocket another $188,000 for reaching the third round of the year’s final major tournament.
“It’s hard to overstate her success,” Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
“There are few other examples of athletes in sport who are so far beyond the number two like that.”
Put another way, about 25,000 women have won prize money in the history of the WTA and Serena Williams has earned more than the bottom 80% of those players combined, he said.
“She has far and away the most career earnings among female athletes and is one of the very few female athletes to be solidly in the top-20 money earners among all athletes in a given year.
“It’s very unusual in sports to see a female athlete have this sort of financial presence,” Matheson said.
While it is difficult to quantify Williams’ financial impact on the sport as a whole, her career has coincided with huge growth in the women’s game.
In 1995, the WTA handed out $35 million in total prize money, an amount that reached $180 million in 2020, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at San Francisco’s Pinnacle Advertising.
There is no doubt that Williams, who along with Venus was introduced to the predominately white sport at an early age by their father in Compton, California, helped bring in a new audience.
“It used to be very country clubby,” Dorfman said.
“Then she came along and it became accepted in public parks and people who never thought about playing tennis before started playing. And a lot more African American players came along.”
As Serena turns her attention to growing her family and becoming a full-fledged business mogul, it is tough to see anyone replicating her on-court dominance anytime soon.
“There’s nobody on the horizon right now that’s going to come close to that,” Dorfman said.
“Hopefully somebody else will come along and dominate but nobody is doing it right now. I don’t think there’s anybody who has the drive and desire to win that Serena does.”
And while it is natural that the WTA would be worried about losing its biggest star, another tends to rise quickly.
“How did the WTA survive Billie Jean King retiring? Well, Chris Evert. How did it survive that? Martina Navratilova. Then Steffi Graf and then Serena,” Matheson said.
“It is crazy how long Serena has been the dominant name but you could make the argument that her being so good has kept other great stars from being the face of the WTA.”
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Toby Davis, Bill Berkrot and Pritha Sarkar)