Time is now to appreciate Serena

NEW YORK -- Serena Williams was never going to fit the mold of the traditional tennis player. She was never going to be a blonde, fine-boned baseliner from a former Soviet Bloc country, so why pretend?

Wear patent-leather boots to a night match instead.

Hard to believe we have been watching her for so long. It was 1999 when Williams won her first U.S. Open singles title. She was following in her big sister's footsteps, and by 2000 the U.S. Open formally honored the women's final by giving it a prime-time television window on CBS.

That was just the beginning. Over the years, Serena Williams -- with her churlishness, athleticism and all-around hotness -- has made the game of tennis better. She, and of course, her sister Venus, showed that power was just as much a part of the women's game as the men's. Serena did her part taking the sport from country clubs to the public courts.

And, after battling what she described as a life-threatening pulmonary embolism this spring, Serena Williams is back in contention for the U.S. Open championship.

Tennis needs her and her hard-serving sister. At 29, Serena won't always be able to reach a final from the 28th seed. She won't always have an agility that seems to defy her muscular frame -- but she does now.

Watch her. The U.S. Open has banked for more than a decade that we will. Whether we come to see the outfits that laugh at decades of delicate fashion sensibilities, her fiery outbursts or a competitiveness that makes opponents look like wide-eyed kittens, overmatched, ill-equipped, pouncing dutifully at a ball already out of reach.

There is what she did on the court, winning 13 majors, many punctuated by a roar, that trademark biceps curl and fist pump. Despite two seasons of health issues she is still seeded, and still No. 84 on the Forbes Celebrity 100, nestled between Heidi Klum and Lil Wayne.

Would Beyonce have shimmied to such quick stardom without Serena before her? Would Kardashian's curves have been so coveted? Maybe, but Williams still broke the mold. American demographic shifts would have done it eventually, but she has been an icon who brought variety to a Western definition of what is beautiful.

Jamie Foxx wanted to be her tennis ball.

She might even have something to do with the latest fashion accessories for women -- clearly defined biceps, triceps and deltoids. And they are a must-have on the WTA tour, which has just instituted a "Strong is Beautiful" campaign.

When Serena is good, she is nearly unstoppable. She's proved that this fortnight again, where she hasn't dropped a set.

When she is bad, no question she is horrid. Serena won't even talk about the moment she told a line judge where she was going to put her blankety-blank tennis ball: "I'm so over it and you should be, too." But it is hard to be over a moment that is now a classic on YouTube, a modern vault for low moments.

There is a segment of the tennis crowd that disliked the Williams family from the start. They were loud, they were outsiders, there were whispers their father manipulated the outcome of their matches. Oracene Price, their mother, once said she'd never seen an American booed on U.S. soil against a foreign opponent until her daughters started playing.

A lot of the criticism was bogus. Some was jealousy. Maybe that's why they have always seemed a bit insular, unwilling to play into storylines at news conferences. They are not always accommodating, but they don't need to be.

Tennis needed the Williams sisters, needed their power and their magnetism. As Americans, they were good for ticket sales and ratings. So they didn't always play every tour event; they have always been worth watching.

The most followed tennis player on Twitter is through to the U.S. Open final. Who knows how many of these Serena Williams has left? It's not too early to start appreciating what she has done for the sport, and what she has done with the platform the sport has given her.

Because tennis will miss her when she's gone.