She is a logo. A persona. An athlete who has gone far beyond the footsteps of her trailblazing sister and got here 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’s going to focus her life far beyond sports, as an alternative prioritizing being a mother, a fashion maker, a enterprise capitalist and way more. She is going to design her future as she sees fit.
She has all the time done it her way, all the time operated on her own terms. It has made her special, uniquely expert and beloved — and has sometimes drawn criticism. It has helped her turn out to be certainly one of the best athletes to ever grace us — a Black woman who grew from the humblest of American beginnings right 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 could be leaving tennis after playing the U.S. Open later this month, befitted the transcendent figure she has turn out to be.
It is straightforward to forget that her championship journey, which got here to incorporate 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just shy of the record of 24 set by Margaret Court, began with a win on the U.S. Open in 1999. At 17 years old, Serena became the primary Black player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win a Grand Slam singles title and the primary Black woman to emerge victorious in a slam since Althea Gibson in 1958.
Williams became the personification of athletic greatness — and carried the aspirations of gender and racial equity — for not less than 20 years.
Along the best 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 when it was long expected, given Williams’s struggles competing lately. She didn’t 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 best way she wants.
In fact she has Anna Wintour, Vogue’s tennis-loving editor, on speed dial. In fact she would announce that she is making a break from tennis through certainly one of the world’s premier fashion magazines.
Serena Williams has never let tennis define her.
With the retirement news, our memories of her are available waves. Oh, how she loved to entertain and placed 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 that would never otherwise watch a tennis match.
Those recent fans, and lots of tried-and-true tennis lovers who had watched the sport 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 degree after which a complete game toward the tip of a loss to Naomi Osaka? The complete spectrum of her profession in tennis — the handfuls of heart-racing wins and the occasionally torturous upsets — weaves into the tapestry that’s Serena Williams.
Race can never be discounted after we speak of Serena, or of Venus Williams, the older sister who began all of it. Their Blackness and their physical stature forged against a tennis world where only a number of shared the same look, felt showstopping.
Ashe and Gibson were high-quality 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, female and male, made transient but essential marks on tennis.
No person strode atop the sport or dominated it with the pounding consistency of the Williams sisters.
Serena added a daring 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 will be Serena who would turn out to be the very best in tennis history.
Are you able to imagine Jimmy Evert, Chris Evert’s father, coach, and a member of the tennis establishment, saying the identical about his daughter as she burst upon the scene within the early Nineteen Seventies?
Nothing Serena Williams ever did was confined by tradition. She defied the establishment and played with a combination of consistent, poleaxing power and touch at the online, energized by a serve for the ages and a boxer’s steely will.
Only the elite of the elite can change the best way their sport is played. Consider 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 combo.
Others played an influence game before her — Jennifer Capriati, for instance — just as there have been other 3-point shooters before Curry. Williams took the sport to recent heights. She went into that 1999 U.S. Open final against Martina Hingis, who had catapulted to the highest of the rankings by fiddling 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 identical.
Consider not only Williams’s game but her style — how she stepped beyond the old norms of fashion and appearance codified in tennis for the reason that Victorian era.
Williams showed up as her full self, her hair braided or beaded or sometimes coloured blond. On the court, she wore outfits of each color: blue, red, pink, black, tan, you name it. She donned studs, sequins and boots disguised as tennis shoes — or was it the opposite way around?
She wore clothing that flowed and swang, or that proudly showed her stomach and powerful shoulders. She made the full-body catsuit a thing on the U.S. Open of 2002 and the talk of Paris on the French Open of 2018.
“I feel like a warrior in it, a warrior princess” Williams told reporters on the French Open, as she referred to the movie “Black Panther.”
“It’s sort of my strategy to be a superhero.”
Sure, noting her fashion might sound superficial and superfluous. But not on this context. Black women’s bodies and fashion are sometimes harshly criticized in ways in which white women don’t often experience. Furthermore, tennis is certainly one of those games certain by a practice of exclusion and uniformity. Williams blew all of that up.
Here’s one other way she leaped beyond old bounds. Recall that Williams won the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant. Then keep in mind that she nearly died in labor. Then recall her comeback after giving birth to Alexis Olympia. She would make 4 more major championship finals.
She lost all of them, true, and none were close matches. But Williams was past her best years, with a toddler at her side and the business world beckoning. And her comeback from pregnancy helped result in a vital rule change in women’s skilled tennis — allowing players to enter tournaments based on their pre-pregnancy rankings for up to 3 years after giving birth.
Now, Williams plans to finish this phase of her life after her last match on the U.S. Open, whether it’s a first-round loss or one more against-all-odds denouement: winning all of it, at 40, after barely stepping on the tour over the past 12 months.
She won’t walk away with ease. She made that clear as she announced what she termed to be her “evolution,” which can include attempting to have one other child. Her attempts, she said, were at odds with continuing her tennis profession, a fact she noted that male skilled athletes don’t have to contend with.
This looks like the ultimate stage of her profession, but we must always 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 skilled tour again, even for just yet another bite of the sports limelight.
If Serena Williams desires to, she’ll do it. This much we all know.