In doing so, Williams followed a proven pattern in the elite echelons of pro tennis: there is no pattern when it comes to retirement.
For some champions, injury will dictate the decision; the body just lets them down.
For others, something essential withers in their hearts – the compulsion to push and punish themselves daily to stay on top.
For others, the decision is messy and filled with doubt. Some days they’re sure they’re tapped; On other days, the competition returns. And the question is: Why exactly stop when I can still play great tennis and maybe beat the best every now and then?
At this year’s US Open, Williams’ anticipated retirement will be delayed by one stunning performance after another amid thunderous cheers from a record-breaking star-studded crowd.
40-year-old Williams, who finished at No. 605, opened the tournament with a straight-set riot against Danka Kovinic at No. 80, who nearly quadrupled ESPN’s ratings from last year. Next her ousted world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit26, who was 3 when Williams won the first of her 23 Grand Slam titles of her Open era at the 1999 US Open.
Everyone is reveling in Williams’ career resurgence – except, of course, for the women on the web. It could be magic if Williams weren’t the game’s toughest competitor, so adept at overcoming adversity, surviving swing swings and doing her best when things are looking their direst.
Williams has never lacked confidence. Now, fueled by the momentum and mania of a lung-splitting, fist-pumping New York crowd, only the most foolhardy would list her against Friday’s third-round opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, or any subsequent challenger. And it might make her question the wisdom of walking away when she can beat big players.
On this point, 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras was a runaway, running away at the peak of his powers.
The most dominant player of his era, Sampras never competed again after toppling his greatest rival, Andre Agassi, to win his last major at the 2002 US Open.
The decision still baffles his former coach Paul Annacone, who was himself a former player, decades later.
“For Pete,” Annacone recalled in a recent interview, “he finally came to the conclusion one day and said, ‘I’ve thought about it for a long time, but I’m done. I’m done.'”
“I said, ‘This is it?’ Win the US Open and never play again. I don’t know how you do it. How is that even possible? But everyone is different. No matter how much success you have or have not had, everyone does it differently.”
Tennis fans of an earlier era were stunned when Bjorn Borg retired at the age of 26. The 11-time Grand Slam champion was a global rock star – a shy, shaggy-haired Swede who sent fans into a frenzy the moment he won the first of his six French Open titles just days after turning 18.
Borg also sparked an intriguing rivalry with the combustible young John McEnroe, whose game and temperament were his opposite. But by his mid-20s, Borg had lost all enjoyment of the game he once loved, and barely quit a word shortly after losing the 1981 US Open final.
The tennis world mourned, mourned once more, when Borg attempted his comeback in the early 1990s fizzled out without a win.
Flash forward some 30 years, and tennis was stunned by yet another retirement last spring as world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty announced via Instagram that she was leaving at 25after achieving everything she dreamed of.
“There is no right way, there is no wrong way. It’s just my way and it’s perfect for me to say I’m retiring from tennis,” Barty said in her post.
In fact, it was the second time in Barty’s short and brilliant career that she gave up tennis. The first came at age 18, after realizing that the burden of child prodigy expectations and the rigors of traveling far from home had robbed her of joy.
After taking nearly two years off to play cricket, Barty returned to tennis, winning the 2019 French Open, 2021 and Wimbledon in what turned out to be the pinnacle of her career. the Australian Open 2022who became the first Australian to win her home major in 44 years.
“When you’ve been working towards something for 20 years and you finally get it, I was like, ‘What else is there?'” Barty later told WTA Insider. “What else could this sport offer me? What else could I gain by playing this sport?”
Unlike Borg, however, Barty’s decision seemed rooted in personal contentment and an eagerness to get on with life. Four months later, she married her longtime boyfriend, Australian golf pro Garry Kissick.
Hall of Famer inductee Chris Evert, who waited until after her retirement in 1989 to start a family, said, “A lot of athletes retire with no future to build for themselves. And I think you’ve seen a lot of depressed retired athletes.
“…For me, after I retired, I felt like I was on vacation for a while every day. I really realized how much pressure is put on a tennis player and how hard I didn’t have to try. I didn’t have to be nervous and have that knot in my stomach every day. And then you have kids, and then it’s all about them. And there is joy. It’s like, whoa, there’s joy in your life.”
Williams made global headlines in August for disclosure in a Vogue cover story that she was “evolving away from tennis” as her 41st birthday approached.
As one of the great champions of the sport who revolutionized the game, Williams long ago passed the mark of having nothing left to prove. At this stage, the desire for a second child is more important, she said.
Even if she embarks on an unlikely late-career run in the tournament’s second week, like Jimmy Connors did when he reached the 1991 US Open semifinals at 39, Williams could leave this year’s US Open with the question of her exact retirement date unanswered.
For some time, fans have been preparing for the inevitable retirement of the 41-year-old Federer, who has brought unprecedented grace to men’s tennis.
The widely revered Swiss champions received a massive ovation for simply stepping onto Center Court in a suit and tie as part of the Wimbledon centenary celebrations at their current location in July.
Federer has not competed since his Straight sets loss to 14th seed Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2021, which was hardly a fitting coda to his Hall of Fame career. But after three knee operations, it is unclear when or even if Federer, now a father of four, will compete again.
Evert, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, recalls her retirement as largely an internal decision shared in advance with few people other than her then-husband Andy Mill and her agent. Evert felt increasingly burned out after 17 years on the Pro Tour and decided to take on one final season, visiting all the cities on her calendar and walking away after the 1989 US Open.
After being ousted by Zina Garrison in the quarterfinals, the pair hugged at the net and Evert waved as they walked off the pitch together.
“It was so different back then,” recalled Evert, now an ESPN analyst. “I mean, it’s like I just waved and walked off the seat and that was it.”
Looking back, she said she wished she had enjoyed the moment a little more and shared her emotions with fans. But that wasn’t her style, and it wasn’t her impulse at the time.
“Basically, after I lost, I just wanted to get off the pitch,” said Evert. “And since [was] no fanfare or anything. no parties Nothing.”
In doing so, she ended the greatest rivalry in the sport.
For 16 years, she and Martina Navratilova measured each other physically, tactically and psychologically in 80 games on clay, grass and hard court. Navratilova finished the game with a 43-37 lead.
Years later, that’s not the only difference Evert remembers about her lifelong friend Navratilova, who competed in singles until 1994 and made a comeback in doubles in 2000.
While Evert retired without fanfare, Navratilova received full star treatment as she played her final singles match – a first-round loss to Gabriela Sabatini at the WTA Tour Championships at Madison Square Garden.
Navratilova, then 38 and the women’s record holder for total weeks (332) at the top of the WTA Rankings, was celebrated with a glittering farewell ceremony in the Garden and presented with a Harley-Davidson.
“I was a bit jealous of that,” Evert recalled with a laugh. “Not that I wanted a motorcycle – but I would have put up with it.”
“A necklace,” she suggested. “Diamond Necklace.”