She is a symbol. A persona. An athlete who has gone far beyond the footsteps of her trailblazing sister and came to rule a cloistered, mostly white sport. She refuses to stop there.
Announcing her plans to retire from tennis, Serena Williams said on Tuesday that she will focus her life far beyond sports, instead prioritizing being a mother, a fashion maker, a venture capitalist and much more. She will design her future as she sees fit.
She has always done it her way, always operated on her own terms. It has made her special, uniquely skilled and beloved — and has sometimes drawn criticism. It has helped her become one of the greatest athletes to ever grace us — a Black woman who grew from the humblest of American beginnings into a star whose magnetic pull reaches far beyond the bounds of sport.
Her announcement, in a Vogue magazine cover story released Tuesday, that she would be leaving tennis after playing the U.S. Open later this month, befitted the transcendent figure she has become.
It is easy to forget that her championship journey, which came to include 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just shy of the record of 24 set by Margaret Court, began with a win at the U.S. Open in 1999. At 17 years old, Serena became the first Black player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first Black woman to emerge victorious in a slam since Althea Gibson in 1958.
Williams became the personification of athletic greatness and — for at least two decades — carried the aspirations of gender and racial equity.
Along the way, she showed the world the incredible power of breaking boundaries and obliterating norms. The Vogue article, a first-person account, feels tellingly symbolic, even if it was long expected, given Williams’s struggles competing in recent years. She did not break the news on her Instagram account, on ESPN, or in a post-match news conference. No, Williams does what she wants, when she wants, in the way she wants.
Of course she has Anna Wintour, Vogue’s tennis-loving editor, on speed dial. Of course she would announce that she is making a break from tennis through one of the world’s premier fashion magazines.
Serena Williams has never let tennis define her.
With the retirement news, our memories of her come in waves. Oh, how she loved to entertain and put on a show. Isn’t that what drew us in? She had a knack, a hunger, a desire that demanded to be seen. Watching her stride upon a Grand Slam center court for a first-round match or a pressurized final was entertainment at its best. She drew multitudes to the moment, bringing along those who would never otherwise watch a tennis match.
Those new fans, and many tried-and-true tennis lovers who had watched the game for years, stood behind her when she struggled or found herself enveloped in disputes over the fierce way she sometimes punctured norms of on-court decorum.
Who can forget the 2018 U.S. Open, when she heatedly clashed with the chair umpire who docked her first a point and then an entire game toward the end of a loss to Naomi Osaka? The full spectrum of her career in tennis — the dozens of heart-racing wins and the occasionally torturous upsets — weaves into the tapestry that is Serena Williams.
Race can never be discounted when we speak of Serena, or of Venus Williams, the older sister who started it all. Their Blackness and their physical stature, cast against a tennis world where only a few shared a similar look, felt showstopping.
Ashe and Gibson were fine players who were occasionally great. Yannick Noah, the mixed-race son of a Black Cameroonian father and white mother, won the French Open in 1983. A smattering of other Black players, male and female, made brief but important marks on tennis.
Nobody strode atop the game or dominated it with the pounding consistency of the Williams sisters.
Serena added a bold defiance to the undertaking, as predicted with certitude by their father, Richard Williams, who even when Venus was splashing first upon the tennis scene said it would be Serena who would become the best in tennis history.
Can you imagine Jimmy Evert, Chris Evert’s father, coach, and a member of the tennis establishment, saying the same about his daughter as she burst upon the scene in the early 1970s?
Nothing Serena Williams ever did was confined by tradition. She defied the status quo and played with a mix of consistent, poleaxing power and touch at the net, energized by a serve for the ages and a boxer’s steely will.
Only the elite of the elite can change the way their sport is played. Think of Stephen Curry’s influence over modern basketball and its fixation with outside shooting. Or Tiger Woods’s revolutionary impact on golf. Add Williams to the mix.
Others played a power game before her — Jennifer Capriati, for example — just as there were other 3-point shooters before Curry. Williams took the game to new heights. She went into that 1999 U.S. Open final against Martina Hingis, who had catapulted to the top of the rankings by playing with finesse and exploiting every angle as prescribed by the old guard. After Williams’s power, speed and grit dispatched Hingis, 6-3, 7-6, tennis would never be the same.
Think of not only Williams’s game but her style — how she stepped beyond the old norms of fashion and appearance codified in tennis since the Victorian era.
Williams showed up as her full self, her hair braided or beaded or sometimes colored blond. On the court, she wore outfits of every color: blue, red, pink, black, tan, you name it. She donned studs, sequins and boots disguised as tennis shoes — or was it the other way around?
She wore clothing that flowed and swung, or that proudly showed her stomach and strong shoulders. She made the full-body catsuit a thing at the U.S. Open of 2002 and the talk of Paris at the French Open of 2018.
“I feel like a warrior in it, a warrior princess,” Williams told reporters at the French Open, as she referred to the movie “Black Panther.”
“It’s kind of my way to be a superhero.”
Sure, noting her fashion might seem superficial and superfluous. But not in this context. Black women’s bodies and fashion are often harshly criticized in ways that white women don’t usually experience. Moreover, tennis is one of those games bound by a tradition of exclusion and uniformity. Williams blew all of that up.
Here’s another way she leaped beyond old bounds. Recall that Williams won the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant. Then remember that she nearly died in labor. Then recall her comeback after giving birth to Alexis Olympia. She would make four more major championship finals.
She lost all of them, true, and none were close matches. But Williams was past her best years, with a child at her side and the business world beckoning. And her comeback from pregnancy helped lead to an important rule change in women’s professional tennis — allowing players to enter tournaments based on their pre-pregnancy rankings for up to three years after giving birth.
Now, Williams plans to end this phase of her life after her last match at the U.S. Open, whether it’s a first-round loss or yet another against-all-odds denouement: winning it all, at 40, after barely stepping on the tour over the past year.
She won’t walk away with ease. She made that clear as she announced what she termed to be her “evolution,” which will include trying to have another child. Her attempts, she said, were at odds with continuing her tennis career, a fact she noted that male professional athletes do not have to contend with.
This looks like the final stage of her career, but we should never be surprised by Williams. I wouldn’t be shocked if perhaps with a second child or more in tow, she pops up on the professional tour again, even for just one more bite of the sports limelight.
If Serena Williams wants to, she’ll do it. This much we know.
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