In a beautifully penned essay, Serena Williams announced that she will retire from tennis sometime after the U.S. Open, which begins later in August. She was meticulous in not giving an exact date or final event, and that in itself contributed to the rawness of a superhero knowing her powers aren’t finite.
Whether or not you’ve followed her journey intently, Williams is arguably tennis’s biggest name and less arguably one of sports’ greatest and most successful competitors. Her 23 Grand Slam titles only tell part of what’s made the 40-year-old’s run so one-of-a-kind — and she’s not ready for it to end. Heck, she may not ever be ready for it to end, and she’s grappling with that in real time.
Often, when athletes are ready to hang it up, they’re really ready to say goodbye. Decades worth of the grind accumulate quickly. But for a special 1% of the 1%, not so much. We saw it with 45-year-old Tom Brady coming out of retirement, and the persuasion of a “one more year” chant on 41-year-old Sue Bird.
Williams’ cover shoot for Vogue and the accompanying essay that announced her inevitable departure from tennis were uneasy for her.
“There is no happiness in this topic for me,” she said. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
Williams spoke of her and her husband’s wish to expand their family, but not to do so again while competing. She gave birth to daughter Olympia in 2017, winning the Australian Open two months pregnant, but suffered several complications during the process including a second pulmonary embolism that left her bedridden for six weeks. It was far from easy, but two years later, she’d reached four Grand Slam finals.
Though she said she loved being pregnant and is proud of her womanhood, she wrote: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
Williams also wrote that she didn’t appreciate a word she feels is antiquated: retirement. That’s a scary word — especially for someone just 40 years old! I get it! She uses the word evolution. She’s evolving away from tennis.
Another part of what made her essay so satisfying was her realness about her legacy.
“There are people who say I’m not the GOAT because I didn’t pass Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles, which she achieved before the “open era” that began in 1968. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record,” she said. “Obviously I do. But day to day, I’m really not thinking about her. If I’m in a grand slam final, then yes, I am thinking about that record. Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help.”
I mean damn, even Serena freaking Williams isn’t satisfied.
“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.
“But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.”
Where many before her have stuck to cliché’s that rubbed off as staged, Williams poured her emotions and competitive fire into this piece, which only makes you appreciate everything she gave — and is still giving — to the game that much more. There will never be another.