Serena Williams’s fellow tennis professionals already know what their sport is like without her.
She has played very little in the past two years and has played just two singles matches in the past 13 months.
But as Williams, now 40 years old, made plain in announcing her impending retirement on Tuesday, it will very soon be time for the wider world to become accustomed to her absence from the courts, as well.
Tennis is a global game, which is a big part of its charm, and despite Williams’s part-time status of late, if you ask anyone on just about any street to start naming women’s tennis players, the first name most would produce would still be Serena Williams.
With her technically sound and forceful serve, she possessed perhaps the most decisive shot in the long history of the women’s game. But there has been much more to her tennis: powerful, open-stance groundstrokes; exceptional and explosive court coverage; and a ferocious, territorial competitive drive that helped her overcome deficits and adversity throughout a professional career that has lasted a quarter century.
At her peaks — and there were several — she was one of the most dominant figures in any sport: able to overwhelm and intimidate the opposition with full-force blows and full-throated roars, often timed for maximum effect.
By force of serve and personality and long-running achievement, she has become synonymous with tennis while managing to transcend it as a Black champion with symbolic reach even if she long eschewed political or social commentary, in part because of her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. Years after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe blazed trails for Black champions, Williams created new paths for modern athletes balancing competition and outside pursuits.
Her off-court world — including acting, fashion design, venture capital, family life and motherhood — most likely allowed her to remain fresh and competitive far longer than expected. And we are not just talking about the public’s expectations. Her father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, clearly had vision: He dreamed up a far-fetched and ultimately right-on-target family plan for Serena and her older sister Venus to dominate women’s tennis. But he also predicted that both would retire early to devote themselves to other endeavors.
Father did not know best in this instance. Both sisters have played into their 40s, displaying an undeniable love of the game that is rather surprising considering that they were given no choice in whether they would play it.
“I got pushed hard by my parents,” Serena Williams wrote in the Vogue essay released on Tuesday announcing her impending retirement. “Nowadays so many parents say, ‘Let your kids do what they want!’ Well, that’s not what got me where I am. I didn’t rebel as a kid. I worked hard, and I followed the rules.”
She then talked about her 4-year-old daughter, Olympia. “I do want to push Olympia — not in tennis, but in whatever captures her interest,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to push too hard. I’m still trying to figure out that balance.”
It is a delicate dance, and my suspicion is that many a tennis family has run aground trying to follow the Williams template, which included a cradle-to-tour focus on greatness but also — extraordinarily — no junior tournaments after age 12.
“Thousands of lives probably went down the wrong path trying to follow that,” said Rick Macci, the fast-talking coach who shaped the games of both Serena and Venus Williams in their youth under Richard’s watchful gaze. “That playbook only worked for the sisters because they were both so amazingly competitive that they maybe did not need to play junior tennis. Other kids need to compete to learn how to win and how to lose.
Though the sisters will always be, in some manner, packaged together in the collective consciousness, it was Serena who grew up, as her father correctly predicted, to be the greater player.
Serena would go on to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles (for now) to Venus’s seven, and to spend 319 weeks at No. 1 to Venus’s 11 weeks. Serena says she takes no joy in that disparity, emphasizing that she would never have scaled such heights without her sister’s high-flying example.
“Without Venus, there would be no Serena,” Serena once said.
It would come as no surprise if Venus, 42, soon joined Serena in retirement at some stage after the U.S. Open or if they decided to call it a career together in New York. But for now, only Serena has made it plain that the end is truly nigh and that — to deploy her own rather endearing sneaker-dragging code for retirement — she is “evolving away from tennis.”
She has certainly helped tennis evolve with point-winning power from all areas of the court; she has certainly helped society evolve with her willingness to change the dialogue about body image and strong women ferociously pursuing their goals. She has had the confidence to take risks, sometimes sartorial, like her French Open catsuit, and sometimes more profound, such as her decision to boycott the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., after she was booed and her father said he heard racial slurs in 2001. Fourteen years later, she returned in the interest of bridging the divide and sending a message about second chances.
But it is her tennis that has spoken loudest the longest. The sport, like many sports, remains fixated on the debate about the greatest of all time, and Williams certainly belongs in the heart of the conversation. It is easy to believe that she, at her best with the same equipment, would have beaten any woman at their best.
But she was not nearly as consistent a winner in regular tour events as past women’s champions like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.
Williams picked her spots, and her 73 tour singles titles rank her fifth on the Open Era career list. Navratilova won 167 singles titles and 177 doubles titles at a time when doubles was much more prestigious and widely played by the stars. Evert won 157 singles titles. Graf, who retired at 30 years old, won 107 and remained No. 1 for a record total of 377 weeks.
But Serena, who has amassed a women’s record of $94.5 million in prize money, played at a time when the Grand Slam tournaments have become evermore the measuring stick of greatness and the focus of global interest and attention.
To her evident frustration, she remains one short of the record of 24 major singles titles, held by Margaret Court, a net-charging Australian who played when Grand Slam tournament fields were smaller and the women’s game lacked the depth it possesses today.
But comparing across eras remains a particularly tricky task in tennis (non-Australian greats of the past often skipped the Australian Open altogether). Perhaps it is wisest not to seek a definitive answer.
“She’s the greatest player of her generation, no doubt,” Navratilova said.
That brooks no argument, and though tennis generations have a way of getting compacted to just a few years, Williams’s greatness was genuinely true to the term. She is the only player to have won singles titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Ten of her Grand Slam singles titles came after age 30: more than any other player. She also reached four major singles finals after giving birth to Olympia.
“She was fresh at 30, a lot fresher than other players and champions in the past,” Navratilova said. “We would have played a lot more matches at that point. But the physical issues meant that she had taken a lot of breaks.”
That enduring excellence — a tribute to Williams’s deep drive, phenomenal talent and innate belief in her own powers — will be a huge part of her legacy, no matter how far she advances in what is surely her final U.S. Open.
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