ABOVE PHOTO: Serena Williams of the US waves as she leaves the court after losing to France’s Harmony Tan in a first round women’s singles match on day two of the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
By Howard Fendrich
Saying “the countdown has begun,” 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams announced Tuesday she is ready to step away from tennis so she can turn her focus to having another child and her business interests, presaging the end of a career that transcended sports.
In an essay released Tuesday by Vogue magazine, and a post on Instagram — the sorts of direct-to-fans communication favored these days by celebrities, a category she most definitely fits — Williams was not completely clear on the timeline for her last match, but she made it sound as if that could be at the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 in New York.
“There comes a time in life when we have to decide to move in a different direction. That time is always hard when you love something so much. My goodness do I enjoy tennis. But now, the countdown has begun,” Williams, who turns 41 next month, wrote on Instagram. “I have to focus on being a mom, my spiritual goals and finally discovering a different, but just (as) exciting Serena. I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
Williams, one of the greatest and most accomplished athletes in the history of her — or any other — sport, wrote in the essay that she does not like the word “retirement” and prefers to think of this stage of her life as “evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
That she would be publicly contemplating the end of her playing days is not all that surprising, given her age — her 10 Grand Slam titles after turning 30 are unsurpassed — her history of injuries and her recent record: one victory in a singles match in the past 12 months (that win arrived Monday in Toronto; she is scheduled to play again on Wednesday).
“Serena Williams is a generational, if not multigenerational, talent who had a profound impact on the game of tennis, but an even greater influence on women in sports, business, and society. At a time when our nation and the world have wrestled with essential issues of identity, Serena has stood as a singular exemplar of the best of humanity after breaking through countless barriers to her participation and ultimate success,” U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said. “She leaves an indelible legacy of grace and grit that will inspire athletes, female, and male, for many generations to come. We can’t thank her enough for all she has done for our sport.”
Williams’ status as an athlete, and a groundbreaker, is obvious to everyone.
She was the first Black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a Grand Slam title; Williams and her older sister, seven-time major singles champion Venus, helped broaden the sport’s audience and attract new players.
“I grew up watching her. I mean, that’s the reason why I play tennis,” Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old African American who was the runner-up at this year’s French Open, said Tuesday. “Tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot, because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game. And it made me believe that I could dominate, too.”
U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said the organization would “be operating under the assumption that this will be Serena Williams’ last U.S. Open.”
It is the year’s final Grand Slam event and one she has won six times, most recently in 2014, to go along with seven titles apiece at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, plus three at the French Open, across a career remarkable for its peaks and its longevity.
She also owns 14 Grand Slam doubles championships, all won with Venus, part of a remarkable tale of two siblings from Compton, California, both of whom grew up to be ranked No. 1, win dozens of trophies, and dominate tennis for stretches — a story told in the Oscar-winning film “King Richard.”
Venus, who is 42 and still competing, was the first in the family to break through, reaching her first Grand Slam final at the 1997 U.S. Open. But it was Serena who soon surpassed her sister, winning the 1999 U.S. Open at age 17 and then going on to add 22 more such triumphs (Venus won seven major singles titles), eventually establishing herself as a one-of-a-kind superstar, known for far more than her talent with a racket in hand.
The younger Williams was armed with as effective a serve as there’s ever been, powerful forehands and backhands, instincts and speed that allowed her to cover every inch of a court and switch from defense to offense in a blink, and an enviable will to win. That unflinching desire to be the best helped make her the best — and also sometimes got her into trouble with chair umpires during matches, most infamously during the 2018 U.S. Open final she lost to Naomi Osaka, a woman more than a decade younger who grew up idolizing Williams, as have so many of today’s players.
The official Twitter feed for Wimbledon posted this message Tuesday above a photo of Williams: “Some play the game. Others change it.”
“I don’t particularly like to think about my legacy. I get asked about it a lot, and I never know exactly what to say. But I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court,” Williams wrote. “They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all.”
The American has won more Grand Slam singles titles in the professional era than any other woman or man. Only one player, Margaret Court, collected more, 24, although the Australian won a portion of hers in the amateur era.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. 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,” Williams said. “Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help. The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams.”
But Williams went on to write, “These days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”
She and her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, have a daughter, Olympia, who turns 5 on Sept. 1.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair,” said Williams, who was pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open for her last Grand Slam trophy. “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.”
Williams said she and Ohanian want to have a second baby and wrote: “I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”
She was off the tour for about a year after getting injured during her first-round match at Wimbledon in 2021. She returned to singles competition at the All-England Club this June and lost in the first round.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don’t know if I will be ready to win New York,” Williams wrote in her essay. “But I’m going to try.”
Williams hinted in the Vogue essay that the U.S. Open would be her last tournament but did not say so explicitly.
“I’m not looking for some ceremonial, final on-court moment,” Williams wrote. “I’m terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst.”