Serena Williams practices for the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie...

Serena Williams practices for the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The summer of 1999 was an incredible time to be a sports fan in New York.

We saw the Knicks make a surprise run to the NBA Finals. We stood in awe as the star-studded Yankees steamrolled their way to yet another World Series title. And we witnessed both tennis and women’s sports change irrevocably when Serena Williams, a 17-year-old power stroking phenom, got her first U.S. Open title.

The weird thing about history is it often takes decades to understand the significance of events. Few watching Williams beat Martina Hingis that afternoon realized they had witnessed a launching-pad moment, that Williams would go on to win 22 more Grand Slam titles and become one of the most important athletes — male or female — in the history of sports.

While all of the other star athletes from that summer have long since retired, Williams has stayed front and center for 23 years.

Williams’ outspokenness, unbridled ambition, and raw physical power has made her one of the most beloved — and most polarizing — athletes in the history of the game. Yet, you can bet it will be mostly love that is showered upon the 40-year-old Monday night when she walks into Arthur Ashe Stadium to play the first match of what is expected to be her final U.S. Open.

“All you need to say about Serena is that she’s put herself in that pantheon of GOATs,’’ tennis great and ESPN commentator John McEnroe said. “She’s up there with Billie Jean King. You mentioned Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady. That’s where Serena is. She’s an icon of icons."

An icon of icons. That’s some pretty heady praise, especially from a player who took some heat a few years ago when he dismissed Williams by saying if she played on the men’s circuit, she would be 700th in the world. 

Yes, it seems everyone loves Williams now. But that hasn’t always been the case. 

In so many ways, Williams has been the ultimate disrupter. Back when she won her first tournament, tennis was mostly a sport of white people watching white players dressed in white clothing. Today, both the crowds and the players and outfits are much more diverse and Williams' success and attitude is a big reason why.

Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Coco Gauff said that watching Williams, a woman of color, dominate the game was a major inspiration for them to get into the sport.

“Growing up I never thought I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was someone who looked like me,” said Gauff, the 11th ranked player in the world who was born four years after Williams won her first U.S. Open. “Sometimes being a woman, a black woman in the world, you kind of settle for less. I feel like Serena taught me that, from watching her, she never settled for less. I can't remember a moment in her career or life that she settled for less.”

No, she hasn’t.

Williams was the first female athlete to really bring in big money off the court and not just from endorsements of tennis apparel and sports-oriented products. According to Sportico, Williams will retire with $450 million in career earnings, the highest of any woman athlete ever.

Williams embraced her power, both on and off the court, something that was threatening to some in a sport that had long valued the demure and the deferential in its women players. Williams has never hesitated to state her case — never held back her emotions when she thought she was being treated unfairly — which is something that rubbed traditionalists and some sports writers the wrong way but has also won over a lot of converts.

“She never set any limits in tennis and in life,” former tennis great and ESPN commentator Chris Evert said. “To get that message across to everybody is very, very powerful. She really has spoken her mind. We haven’t always agreed with her, but the good has outweighed the bad.

“She has so many platforms from the body shaming to working moms to women of color. Just empowering women. I think that message off the court to me and to millions of people is more powerful than what she’s done on the court.”

That’s saying a lot given that Williams is just one Grand Slam win short of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.

It would take a minor miracle for Williams to tie that record. She has played sporadically the last couple of years and is ranked 608th in the world as she enters Monday night’s match against 80th ranked Danka Kovinic. The Open has given Serena and Venus a wild card into the doubles.

Yet, considering that even the worst ticket at Arthur Ashe Stadium for Monday night was selling for $304 Friday night, it seems that most spectators just don’t care. Win or lose, this time spectators understand they will be witnessing history.