It was delivered with style and packed with substance.
Does Serena Williams do anything any other way?
Williams acknowledged the impending conclusion of her professional tennis career in the upcoming issue of Vogue magazine, all style in her icy-blue Balenciaga-draped cover portrait. The photo teased a beautifully penned first-person essay, in which the substance of her emotion-draped words was no less impactful than the imagery up front.
In sharing her journey from the difficult decision to “evolve” away from the game she loves to the thrilling anticipation of the next chapter of her business and personal lives, Williams delivered in the familiar way she has for so long on the court — with style and substance.
Wrapping up her tennis career surely doesn’t come as some big surprise, not given Williams’s age, commitment, and present-day abilities. But it does come as stop-you-in-your tracks breaking news, taking a well-deserved turn in the spotlight as it interrupted telecasts, filled up newspaper columns, and lit up the Internet.
But as much as we stop to marvel at what she has done in the past, the conversation around her singular persona demands that we wonder about what she will do next.
And that, for a female athlete, feels so groundbreaking, interrupting the space so long crowded by ex-quarterbacks-turned-analysts or ex-catchers-turned-managers or ex-NBA guards-turned-team owners or ex-wide receivers-turned-politicians.
Women fought so hard just to find a place to play, to expand opportunities in local leagues, in scholastic play, in college arenas, and ultimately, professional spaces, and it was a fight big enough all on its own. But now, as the most successful and high-profile beneficiaries of those efforts reach retirement age, there is another new world to conquer, a byproduct of that expansion and inclusivity.
Serena Williams is the perfect ambassador to lead the way.
She has so many possibilities, many of which she included in her essay. She’ll continue her work through Serena Ventures, cracking an investment space she was stunned to learn has skewed 98 percent toward men. Perhaps she’ll dabble in Hollywood acting or producing, or get more deeply involved in the fashion world that has always hidden in the plain sight of her tennis attire. Or maybe before it all, she’ll answer daughter Olympia’s pleas for a sibling by having another child with husband Alex Ohanian.
So much of it is possible because of the tennis, in which she set an undeniable standard of greatness and earned near-inarguable status as best of all-time, while at the same time living the reality of how much representation matters.
Born in 1981 and delivered headfirst into this Title IX generation, Williams departs the game approaching her 41st birthday. As she leaves, taking with her 23 Grand Slam singles titles and so many other statistical achievements, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, now the 11th-ranked woman in the world, steps in. This week, Gauff spoke to what it meant to have Williams there.
“I grew up watching her. I mean, that’s the reason why I play tennis,” Gauff told reporters at the National Bank Open in Canada. “Tennis being predominantly a white sport, it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game. It made me believe that I could dominate too.”
For Serena, it was the view of older sister Venus that provided that model, it was the games of Pete Sampras and Monica Seles that she studied and mimicked, it was the drive from father Richard and the skepticism of the doubters that pushed her so far and so hard, it was the thrill of the crowds and the love of the fans. Now new wonders beckon, as she wrote on her Instagram page:
“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. I have to focus on being a mom, my spiritual goals and finally discovering a different but just [as] exciting Serena.
“I’m going to relish these next few weeks.”
So are we all.
First, we reflect and we marvel and we celebrate all she has done. We watch the headline-grabbing turn in the spotlight, eat up the breathless breaking news, absorb the days-long analyses that continue to resonate beyond the sports sphere. We watch the immediate spike in ticket sales for the upcoming US Open, which Williams confirmed as her farewell stop.
We think of the group of outstanding female athletes who have announced their retirement in recent weeks and months: Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles from the WNBA, Allyson Felix from track and field, Ash Barty and Williams from tennis. We listen to their stories of hard work and achievement and glory and hardship. And we wonder what comes next.
For all the thoughts Williams shared in her essay, this packed the most punch for me.
“I don’t particularly like to think about my legacy,” she wrote. “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. 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.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. Mistakes are learning experiences, and I embrace those moments. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve also taken a lot of criticism, and I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier.
“Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis. I admire Billie Jean [King] because she transcended her sport. I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”
Style and substance. Her usual way.