She is an icon. a personality. An athlete who has gone far beyond the footsteps of her pioneering sister and rules a closed, mostly white sport. She refuses to stop there.
Serena Williams announced her plans to retire from tennis, saying on Tuesday she will focus her life well beyond sport and instead focus on being a mother, fashion designer, venture capitalist and more. She will shape her future as she sees fit.
Oh, that’s Serena.
She has always done it her way, always acted on her own terms. It has made her special, uniquely gifted and loved – and has sometimes drawn criticism. It has helped her become one of the greatest athletes we have ever graced – a black woman who has grown from humble American beginnings to a star whose magnetic appeal extends far beyond the confines of sport.
Your announcement, in a Cover story of Vogue magazine Posting Tuesday that she would be quitting tennis after playing the US Open later this month was fitting for the transcendent figure she has become.
It’s easy to forget that her championship journey, which spanned 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just below Margaret Court’s record of 24, began with a win at the 1999 US Open. At 17, Serena became the first black player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first black woman to win a Slam since Althea Gibson in 1958.
Williams became the personification of sporting greatness and supported—for at least two decades—the aspirations for gender and racial justice.
In doing so, she showed the world the incredible power to break boundaries and erase norms. The Vogue article, a first-person account, feels distinctively symbolic, even if it was long-awaited given Williams’ struggles in recent years. She did not break the news on her Instagram account, on ESPN, or in a post-game press conference. No, Williams does what she wants, when she wants, how she wants.
Of course, she has Anna Wintour, Vogue’s tennis-loving editor, on her speed dial. Of course, she would announce via one of the world’s leading fashion magazines that she is taking a break from tennis.
Serena Williams never let tennis define her.
With the news of her retirement, our memories of her come in waves. Oh how she loved to entertain and put on a show. Isn’t that what attracted us? She had a talent, a hunger, a desire to be seen. Watching her step onto a Grand Slam center court for a first-round match or a pressurized final was great entertainment. She attracted a lot of people at the moment and brought in those who would otherwise never watch a tennis match.
These new fans, and many seasoned tennis lovers who had followed the game for years, stood behind her as she struggled or engaged in arguments because she sometimes violated the norms of court decency.
Who can forget that US Open 2018, as she heatedly clashed with the chair umpire who earned her a point and then a full game late in a loss to Naomi Osaka? The full spectrum of her tennis career — the dozens of heartbreaking victories and the occasional nagging upset — weaves into the tapestry that is Serena Williams.
Race can never be disregarded when we talk about Serena or Venus Williams, the older sister who started it all. Her blackness and physical stature set against a tennis world where few have looked alike felt stunning.
Ashe and Gibson were good players who were great on occasion. Yannick Noah, the multiracial son of a black Cameroonian father and a white mother, won the 1983 French Open. A few other black players, male and female, made brief but important marks in tennis.
No one exceeded the game or dominated it with the Williams sisters’ pounding consistency.
Serena added a bold defiance to the venture, as predicted with certainty by her father Richard Williams, who even as Venus first splashed onto 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 member of the tennis establishment, saying the same thing about his daughter when she came onto the scene in the early 1970s?
Nothing Serena Williams has ever done has been constrained by tradition. Defying the status quo, she played at net with a blend of consistent, poleaxing power and touch, fueled by a serve to last 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 on modern basketball and his fixation on outside shooting. Or the revolutionary impact of Tiger Woods on golf. Add Williams to the mix.
Others played power games before her—Jennifer Capriati, for example—just as there were other 3-point shooters before Curry. Williams took the game to new heights. She entered the 1999 US Open final against Martina Hingis who had catapulted her way to the top of the rankings by playing with finesse and exploiting every angle as the old guard dictates. After Williams’ power, speed and stamina defeated Hingis 6-3, 7-6, tennis would never be the same.
Think not only of Williams’ game but also of her style – how she pushed beyond the old norms of fashion and appearance that had been codified in tennis since the Victorian era.
Williams appeared as herself, her hair braided or beaded, or sometimes dyed blonde. On the pitch, she wore outfits of all colors: blue, red, pink, black, tan, you name it. She wore studs, sequins and boots disguised as sneakers – or was it the other way around?
She wore clothes that billowed and swayed, or that proudly showed off her stomach and powerful shoulders. She made the full body catsuit at the 2002 US Open and the talk of Paris at the 2018 French Open.
“It makes me feel like a warrior, a warrior princess,” Williams told reporters at the French Open when referring to the Black Panther movie.
“It’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”
Sure, noticing their fashion may 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 typically experience. In addition, tennis is one of those sports that are committed to a tradition of exclusion and uniformity. Williams blew it all up.
Here’s another way she pushed old boundaries. Recall that Williams won the 2017 Australian Open when she was two months pregnant. Then remember that she almost died in labor. Then remember her comeback after giving birth to Alexis Olympia. She would reach four more major championship finals.
She lost them all, that’s true, and none were a close match. But Williams was past her prime, with a child by her side and the business world beckoning. And her comeback from pregnancy contributed to an important one Rule change in professional women’s tennis — Players can compete in tournaments based on their pre-pregnancy rankings for up to three years after the birth.
Now, Williams plans to end that phase of her life after her final match at the US Open, whether it’s a first-round loss or another resolution against all odds: winning it all at 40 after her has barely entered the tour over the past year.
She won’t just walk away. She made that clear when she announced what she described as her “evolution,” which will include trying to have another child. Her attempts, she said, were at odds with continuing her tennis career, a fact male professional athletes don’t struggle with.
This looks like the final phase of her career, but we should never let Williams surprise us. I wouldn’t be shocked if she reappears on the pro tour, perhaps with a second child or more in tow, even for just one more bite in the sport’s spotlight.
If Serena Williams wants it, she will. We know that much.