Serena Williams can’t bear to say “retirement.”

Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time, but that hardly captures her impact. Even calling her one of the most dominant athletes in history feels limited. She and her sister Venus represent one of the most unlikely success stories in American history. But that doesn’t capture the implausibility of two little black girls from Compton, California, rising to become the world’s best tennis players.

So if her US Open first round match with Danka Kovinic tonight is indeed her last match at the Open ever (or if this is her last appearance in a tournament, period), Williams can retire knowing that words cannot fully describe what she has meant to the sport. for women – especially black women – and for American culture. Think how Alvin Ailey has relaunched modern dance in his own image. Williams did the same for tennis. A generation of women witnessed Williams uncompromisingly change everything within her reach.

Williams stated in an I essay for Fashion a few weeks ago she plans away from tennis after this year’s US Open. In her essay, Williams insisted that she is not retiring. Instead, she said, she’s evolving.

“I never liked the word retirement Williams wrote. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve taken this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use this word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m about to do evolution.”

Williams’ passion for her sport appears to be as alive as it was when she began her professional career at age 14, but in the past two years, injuries and age have overwhelmed her desire to play. In 2021 he suffered a torn muscle fiber at Wimbledon kept her off the pitch for nearly a year. 2020, She retired from the French Open because of an ongoing Achilles tendon problem that ultimately ended her season. If you beat Nuria Parrizas-Diaz at the Canadian Open earlier this monthit was her first singles win in 14 months.

As Williams approaches her 41st birthday in September, she seems to have come to the conclusion that the demands of tennis are at odds with the other plans she has for her life. She wants to expand her family and delve even deeper into her many business ventures, which includes a venture capital firm, Serena Ventures raised $111 million and manages a portfolio of 60 startups.

The thought of leaving tennis visibly hurts her. “I hesitate to admit to myself or anyone else that I need to stop playing tennis,” Williams wrote Fashion. “Alexis, my husband and I hardly talked about it; It’s like a taboo subject. I can’t even have that conversation with my mom and dad. It’s like it’s not real until you say it out loud. It comes up, I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat and I start to cry.”

To characterize all this as evolution probably takes away the sting to leave the sport to which she dedicated her life. However, I hope Williams also recognizes that evolving – and growing and redefining the world around them – is exactly what we’ve seen them over the past 27 years.

Who else could win a major title two months pregnant like she did at the Australian Open in 2017? Who else could turn heads around the world in a dynamic black catsuit at the French Open? (Williams’ attire at the 2018 tournament eventually prompted the French Tennis Federation to do so Ban catsuits.) Who else could study fashion design in the prime of their tennis career and then design successfully Clothing and jewelry lines? Who else could completely change the perception of what older tennis players could achieve by winning 10 of their 23 Grand Slam titles after 30 years? Who else could make it look so graceful to be strong and powerful?

Williams’ tennis résumé alone vouches for them GOAT statusbut what moves her into iconic territory is the impact she achieves by using her voice so fearlessly.

Four years ago, Williams opened up about the life-threatening complications she experienced after doctors performed an emergency C-section during the birth of her daughter. Williams was short of breath and told a nurse that because of her detailed knowledge of her own medical history, she felt she needed a CT scan, but was initially turned away. She later told her doctor, who listened gratefully. It was then that doctors learned that she had multiple blood clots in her lungs. Black women are three times more common than white women dying of pregnancy-related complications, so Williams’ public sharing of her ordeal has become a powerful tool in the ongoing conversation about racial disparities in healthcare.

“Because of what I’ve been through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the health care that I do – and to imagine all the other women going through this without the same health care, without the same disturbing reaction,” Williams told the BBC.

Williams championed herself — and dominated her sport — without ever compromising her blackness. In 2000, when she was the sixth-ranked player in the world, She retired from an event in South Carolina to support the NAACP’s economic boycott of the state over the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse. In 2016, after two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers in separate incidents a day apart, Williams wrote a heartfelt Facebook post about fear for her 18-year-old nephew’s life. Dismayed that black people continue to be routinely subjected to such state-sanctioned atrocities, she wrote, “Haven’t we been through enough, opened so many doors, impacted billions of lives? But I realized that we have to keep going – because it’s not about how far we’ve come, it’s about how much further we have to go.”

Williams volunteered to take up these struggles for social justice and justice, even as she was constantly in the crosshairs of misogyny and racism. Critics have compared her to a monkey and a monster truck. She was summoned a manand of course subject racist comments.

Her armor against these vile attacks should become the best player the sport has ever seen. Her challenge going forward will be to use her platform as heavily as she has throughout her tennis career.

Williams has been a cultural icon for so long that it’s hard to imagine that she would be any less when she finally quits tennis. As inspiring as it has been to watch her play, it will be rewarding to see her develop.

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