Documenting Serena Williams: The timeless moments that defined her legendary career


For Serena Williams, her very essence can be summed up in nine short words: “expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong.”

In a first-person essay for Vogue earlier this month, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist dropped the blockbuster news that she would be “evolving away from tennis.” Hesitant to use the word “retirement” but undeniably laying out the strategy for her next chapter, the 40-year-old Williams wrote candidly about her desire to expand her family and her excitement at delving more into business via Serena Ventures, a capital venture firm.

Bank of the West Classic - Day 4
“I always thought that she’s really power and grace, so I think [this photo] kind of sums it up perfectly,” says Stockman. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

But before turning the page to that next chapter, Williams appears poised for once last run at glory. She’ll take center stage Monday night at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where she’ll face 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in a first-round match at the U.S. Open. How far she’ll go in the tournament remains to be seen, but Monday marks a full-circle moment for Williams, who won her first major title in New York 23 years ago.

During her nearly 30-year career, Williams won six singles titles and two doubles titles with her sister, Venus Williams, at Flushing Meadows, where she’ll team with Venus once more for doubles competition beginning Wednesday. As the countdown to Serena’s last stand ticks on, On Her Turf talked with several visual journalists who’ve enjoyed a courtside view to an icon in the making.

2015 U.S. Open - Day 5
“My favorite thing is that she didn’t hide her emotions,” says Garrison. “As a photographer, we love that, because then you could make that human connection when someone’s looking at your picture of her celebrating … You can feel a trigger response.” (Photo by Elsa Garrison/Getty Images)

“It feels like the Super Bowl every time she plays,” said Getty Images photographer Sarah Stier. “She’s an athlete that really transcends her sport, … so when I cover her, I cover her like a Tom Brady.

“I’m always looking for these very like stoic moments because she is an athlete that’s going to be remembered for a very, very long time, even after she stops playing. And so my coverage of her goes beyond the action, and it goes, I think, even beyond the emotion. She is a very emotional athlete when she competes, but I think I’m always trying to look for a moment that will be timeless and will represent her in history as the greatest ever do it.”

2018 US Open - Day 5
“I love the opportunity to be able to cover [Venus and Serena] playing against each other and to have a frame that puts them … on different planes,” said Stier. “They’re not actually looking right at each other, but I just love that moment of togetherness between the two of them.”(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

However, it was Stier who captured a now infamous moment in Williams’ career, during her 2018 U.S. Open final match against Naomi Osaka. Upset by a warning from chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who said he witnessed a code violation for coaching, Williams unleashed on Ramos, saying in part, “I don’t cheat to win; I would rather lose. I am just letting you know.”

“It’s so hard because I feel like when these moments are happening right in front of you, you know that it’s going to be a very important story, and so you’re just kind of going through the motions to capture everything,” Stier recalls, admitting she also felt nervous in the moment as it was her first time shooting a Grand Slam final.

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Serena Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 U.S. Open final. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I had no idea what she was arguing, I couldn’t really tell. But I do remember, I had to like watch things a few days later and decide was this controversial? Was it not? And people would ask me afterwards what I thought, and I think I still didn’t know, but I just think, ‘Okay, how many male athletes have we seen yell at a referee, tennis players yell at an umpire?’ And people were attacking her for how she handled this moment. And you could go on and on about how she could or couldn’t have handled the moment. But the bottom line is we’ve seen people do this before, and she doesn’t have to act a certain way just because she’s a woman.”

“No matter what it is, she’s always brings the same intensity and passion to whatever she does,” said fellow Getty Images photographer Elsa Garrison, whose career covering tennis nearly mirrors Williams’. More than 50 tournaments and 20 years later, Garrison says she’s felt Serena’s impact personally.

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“It was always like, ‘What is she going to walk out wearing, you know? And how can showcase that? Every match was like a fashion show,” said Garrison. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

“It’s been really cool to see not only her being an advocate for women and women’s sports, but also, as far as what expectations put on women, or how we’re supposed to see ourselves, and for me to see her not accepting anything less than what she wants and what she needs and what she is going after, and to go after things so unapologetically, to be fierce, and to let your emotions out and for it to be like perfectly okay and acceptable, it’s inspiring. That’s what women are supposed to be able to do.”

For Garrison, Stier and colleague Matthew Stockman, the visual feast that comes with covering Serena has been a bit like Thanksgiving mixed with a dash of Christmas. From her glam appearance and her barrier-pushing on-court fashion to the parade of famous faces in the stands, covering Williams’ career has morphed into a documenting the life and impact of a true icon.

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“People lost their minds when she wore this catsuit in 2018, and now I see people walking down the streets of Denver wearing the same thing,” said Stockman. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“She brought all these people together and expanded the whole fan base of tennis, you know?” said Stockman, who’s also spent more than 20 years covering Williams. “These are fans that came to the game because of her. … She brought them to the game, she brought them in the gates, and opened up tennis – and especially the women’s game – to a much broader audience.”

Her impact is palpable this week in New York, where the Getty Images team arrived prior to Wednesday in order to capture every practice session leading up to Williams’ first-round match. While the team is maxed out at eight photographers at the tournament, Getty Images will place a majority of photographers on her matches, knowing that every moment holds huge significance.

“I think it’s going to make it obviously pretty stressful for all of us, because we want to be able to cover this moment in the most comprehensive and the best way possible,” said Stier. “We’re going to have so many people there, so we are going to be able to get that done. But I think with anything that’s never happened before — obviously, athletes have retired before, but Serena has never retired before — so we don’t know how it’s all going to unfold and how it will play out, but I do think that it will make covering this tournament incredibly memorable.”

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Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

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“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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