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Tara Sullivan

A generation of top female athletes are retiring in bittersweet fashion, but they’re headed for exciting second acts

Four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird is the leader in assists in league history, playing her entire 20-year career in Seattle.Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

The sentiments came from opposite sides of the country, but sounded so much the same.

Sometimes, it can hurt to win.

When victory comes at the expense of a beloved athlete playing their final game, writing a different ending than the fairy tale imagined by fans, it can leave the victor feeling as much sympathy for the vanquished as happiness for themselves. Two recent examples inspired such a reaction.

First, it was Ajla Tomljanovic, the tennis player who ousted all-time great Serena Williams from what is expected to be her final Grand Slam tournament this past week at the US Open. On the court after the match, Tomljanovic apologized to the crowd, saying, “I’m feeling sorry just because I love Serena as much as you guys do,” adding later that as much as she wanted to win under the white-hot lights in New York City, “when it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.”

Then there was Becky Hammon, the coach who led the Las Vegas Aces past the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Western Conference finals, sending legendary Storm point guard Sue Bird to the showers for the final time. From her postgame dais, Hammon invoked what Tomljanovic had said only a few days earlier, with, “It’s kind of like the girl that beat Serena. It’s bittersweet.”

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At their core, the comments spoke to something simple: respect for two storied, successful, and celebrated careers. Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles alongside sister Venus, four Olympic gold medals, and 319 weeks as world No. 1. Bird, high school All-American, two-time NCAA champion at UConn, four-time WNBA champ, five-time Olympic gold medalist, and WNBA all-time leader in assists while playing her entire 20-year career in Seattle. Statistics that more than earned every standing ovation, every round of applause, and every tear shed.

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But the depth of those reactions speak to something deeper, too, to what it means to have a generation of top female athletes hitting retirement with such fanfare, such acclaim, and such possibility for what they might do next. For Williams and Bird, ages 40 and 41, respectively, yes, but also for Allyson Felix and Sylvia Fowles, 36-year-olds retiring from track and field, and basketball, respectively. Felix is the most decorated woman in Olympic track history with 11 medals (seven gold) across five consecutive Olympics. Fowles is a two-time WNBA champ, all-time rebounds leader, two-time Finals MVP, league MVP, and four-time Defensive Player of the Year.

Great players all. And all now poised to break ground on the road ahead much the way they did on the one behind.

“There’s a lot more opportunity, one, because they’ve accumulated some wealth they can invest, and two, they have brands beyond the playing field,” said Dr. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor and director of sports management programs at George Washington University. “So, they’re not just known for being a player, they’re known for being an advocate, for being fashionable, for supporting different causes, all of it.”

Serena Williams said goodbye to elite tennis after dominating the women's game for more than two decades.Sarah Stier/Getty

Maybe they go into media, or maybe they go into coaching, two areas long seen as the full scope of post-retirement landing spots. But maybe they eschew those for ventures beyond the games, to boardrooms and C suites, to ownership groups or front office roles. For Williams, there is Serena Ventures, her investment capital endeavors that promote entrepreneurship, the tip of an iceberg she envisioned when she said after her last match, “I have such a bright future ahead of me.”

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Bird, who has worked in media, doing a fabulous ManningCast-style broadcast of women’s NCAA games alongside her fiancee and fellow star athlete Megan Rapinoe, in addition to working as a traditional analyst, has also done front office work as a scout. Off the court, she’s a minority owner in the NWSL’s Gotham FC (Williams is a part-owner of Angel FC), a founding member of commerce/multimedia company TOGETHXR, with fellow athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, and Simone Manuel, and a passionate advocate for LGBTQIA issues.

Felix was primarily responsible for forcing Nike into important changes to its pregnancy policy regarding sponsored athletes, when she pushed back on its arcane idea of stopping her salary while pregnant, as well as rushing her back to competition after delivery. She is also an entrepreneur with a sneaker line designed for women. Fowles’s off-court work has included social justice advocacy and sponsoring youth teams in her hometown of Miami. She also trained in mortuary science while playing and intends to pursue it as a career.

“These women have taken leadership roles, too,” Delpy Neirotti said. “They’re strong physically, but they also have strong voices and are not afraid to use them. So, I think they have courage to be unbelievable on the court, but they have the courage to use their voice off the court. Women haven’t had a platform like the men have had, and I believe the women definitely are more vocal for everything.”

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When you have to build it yourself, you value that platform even more. These women are the game-changers, brought up under the equality and opportunity of Title IX, cognizant of a time before the WNBA even existed, participating now as it, and other women’s sports, draw more attention than ever. The Aces-Storm Game 3 on ABC peaked at 1.4 million viewers, and according to ESPN, ratings for the WNBA conference championship series, through six games, were up 56 percent from 2021, and the playoffs overall, through 16 games, were up 42 percent.

And then there is Williams’s third-round match against Tomljanovic, only the most-watched tennis telecast in ESPN’s 43-year history, with an average of 4.6 million viewers. The previous record was for the 2012 Wimbledon men’s final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

“We’re women, we want this to happen, but let’s face it, the last two years have proven it’s good business for people to be promoting women,” Delpy Neirotti said. “If we didn’t have this whole diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative high on everybody’s radar, I’m not sure they would have done it. But thank goodness there is this initiative, people recognizing that women attract corporate brands, they attract viewers.

“Men are definitely watching and supporting and admiring women’s sports much more now, and the world has noticed.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.