Impact 10:No. 1 Serena Williams
When we watch Serena Williams play, we are watching history in the making.
This past year, the 32-year-old tennis player won more money ($12.4 million), titles (11) and matches (78) than she has in any other year of her career. She added the French Open and U.S. Open to a trophy case that now has 17 majors, just one title behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who are tied for fourth place on the all-time list.
But unlike everyone above her, Williams is still accruing those titles and showing no signs of letting up.
"Right now, I can't imagine my life without a tennis racket in my hand," she told reporters after winning the WTA Championships in Istanbul in October.
When she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999 at the U.S. Open, tennis was a game ruled by baseliners. As Williams matured, she ushered in the era of female power hitters, of which she was the CEO. She has changed the game, forcing her opponents to become stronger and improve their service returns.
Right now, there are only a few players on the WTA Tour who can beat her with any kind of consistency.
In some ways, Williams' path into tennis was paved by big sister Venus. They were natural allies in an unfamiliar world, where their beaded hair was critiqued as their father, Richard, smoked his long, brown cigarettes outside the player entrance to tournaments.
In sports, veteran stars will sometimes play against a rookie who grew up idolizing them. With Serena, this is happening while she is still at the top of her game. She had a 34-match winning streak this year, while her record under coach Patrick Mouratoglou is 124-6.
Williams has been just that dominant.
She is the oldest world No. 1 in WTA history. Her $12.4 million in prize money more than eclipsed the former record of $7.2 million set by Victoria Azarenka. Serena has won $54 million in prize money over her career and has earned millions more in endorsements. To hear her say it, though, she loves playing now more than she ever has.
Will age catch up with her? Possibly. But Williams played less at a time when some of her peers were burning themselves out on the grind of the international tour.
Will her peers catch up with her? Maybe. But only Azarenka has the game and confidence to beat Williams with regularity, and she is still a distant No. 2.
How about injury? Williams hasn't missed significant time since a foot injury in 2010, an absence that seemed to only fuel her competitiveness. Now, she is playing for the record books.
Williams doesn't always act the role model. Her comments about the Steubenville rape case were insensitive, and she is known to clash with other players on the tour (including Maria Sharapova and Sloane Stephens just this year). She doesn't appear to relish these moments, but doesn't seem to shy from them either.
She twice apologized for her Steubenville remarks, but Williams doesn't apologize for who she is. She can be brash or funny, often at the same time. She guards her time carefully and keeps her circle close.
She has never hidden who she is, flaws included. Maybe Williams isn't as tempered as some U.S. Open linesmen would like, but she is authentic. The emotion and fist-clenching joy she expresses at each additional title is all real and right there on the surface.
And it is a reminder that, overall, Williams is a winner.