Serena Williams’ fellow tennis pros already know what their sport is like without her.
She has played very little in the last two years and has only played two singles matches in the last 13 months.
But as Williams, now 40, made clear by announcing her impending retirement on Tuesday, it will very soon be time for the world to get used to her absence from the courts as well.
Tennis is a global game, which is a big part of its charm, and despite Williams’ part-time status of late, if you ask anyone on just about any street to start naming female tennis players, that’s the first name most will produce still be Serena Williams.
With her technically solid and powerful serve, she had perhaps the most decisive shot in the long history of the women’s game. But there has been much more to her tennis: powerful, open-court strokes; exceptional and explosive court coverage; and a fierce, territorial competitive drive that helped her overcome deficits and adversity throughout a professional career that has spanned a quarter of a century.
At her peak – and there were several – she was one of the most dominant figures in any sport: able to overwhelm and intimidate her opponents with punches and full-throated roars, often timed for maximum effect.
Through service and personality and long-lasting achievements, she has become synonymous with tennis while managing to transcend it as a black champion with symbolic reach, although she long avoided political or social commentary, in part due to her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. Years after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe paved the way for Black champions, Williams forged new paths for modern athletes balancing competition and outside pursuits.
Her world off the court – including acting, fashion design, venture capital, family life and motherhood – likely allowed her to stay healthy and competitive far longer than expected. And we’re not just talking about the public’s expectations. Her father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, had a clear vision: He dreamed of a far-fetched and ultimately on-target family plan for Serena and her older sister Venus to dominate women’s tennis. But he also predicted that both would retire early to devote themselves to other endeavors.
Father did not know best in this case. Both sisters have been playing in their 40s and show an undeniable love for the game which is quite surprising considering they were given no choice if they wanted to play it.
“I was pushed hard by my parents,” Serena Williams wrote in the Vogue essay published on Tuesday announcing her impending retirement. “Today, so many parents say: ‘Let the children do what they want!’ Well, that’s not what got me to where I am. I didn’t rebel as a child. I worked hard and I followed the rules.”
She then talked about her 4-year-old daughter, Olympia. “I want to push Olympia — not in tennis, but in whatever catches her interest,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to push too hard. I’m still trying to figure out that balance.”
It’s a delicate dance, and I suspect that many a tennis family has gone awry trying to follow the Williams template, which included a cradle-to-tour focus on greatness, but also—extraordinarily—no junior tournaments after the age of 12.
“Thousands of lives probably went the wrong way trying to follow that,” said Rick Macci, the fast-talking coach who shaped the matches of both Serena and Venus Williams in their youth under Richard’s watchful eye. “That playbook only worked for the sisters because they were both so incredibly competitive that maybe they didn’t need to play junior tennis. Other children must compete to learn to win and lose.
Although the sisters will always be somehow bundled together in the collective consciousness, it was Serena who grew up, as her father correctly predicted, to become the greatest player.
Serena would go on to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles (so far) to Venus’ seven, spending 319 weeks at No. 1 to Venus’ 11 weeks. Serena says she is not happy about that disparity, stressing that she would never have reached such heights without her sister’s high-flying example.
“Without Venus, there would be no Serena,” Serena once said.
It would come as no surprise if Venus, 42, soon joined Serena in retirement at some point after the US Open, or if they decided to call it a career together in New York. But for now, only Serena has made it clear that the end is indeed near, and that she’s “evolving away from tennis” — to deploy her own rather lovable sneaker-wearing code for retirement.
She has certainly helped tennis evolve with point-winning power from all areas of the court; she has certainly helped the community evolve with her willingness to change the dialogue about body image and strong women intensely pursuing their goals. She has had the confidence to take risks, sometimes sartorial, like her French Open catsuit, and sometimes more profound, such as her decision to boycott the tournament in Indian Wells, California, after she was booed and her father said he heard racial slurs in 2001. Fourteen years later, she returned in the interest of bridging the divide and sending a message of second chances.
But it is her tennis that has spoken the loudest for the longest time. The sport, like many sports, remains fixated on the debate about the greatest of all time, and Williams certainly belongs at the heart of the conversation. It is easy to believe that, at her best with the same equipment, she would have beaten any woman at her best.
But she was not nearly as consistent a winner in regular tour events as former women’s champions such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.
Williams picked her spots, and her 73 tour singles titles rank her fifth on the Open Era career list. Navratilova won 167 singles titles and 177 doubles titles at a time when doubles was much more prestigious and widely played by the stars. Evert won 157 singles titles. Graf, who retired at age 30, won 107 and remained No. 1 for a record 377 weeks.
But Serena, who has amassed a women’s record $94.5 million in prize money, played at a time when the Grand Slam tournaments have always become the benchmark of greatness and the focus of global interest and attention.
To her obvious frustration, she remains one short of the record of 24 major singles titles held by Margaret Court, a charging Australian who played when Grand Slam tournament fields were smaller and the women’s game lacked the depth it has today.
But comparing across eras remains a particularly difficult task in tennis (non-Australian greats of the past often skipped the Australian Open altogether). Perhaps it is wisest not to seek a definitive answer.
“She’s the greatest player of her generation, without a doubt,” Navratilova said.
That’s no argument, and while tennis generations have a way of being compressed into just a few years, Williams’ greatness was truly true to the term. She is the only player to have won singles titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Ten of her Grand Slam singles titles came after the age of 30: more than any other player. She also reached four major singles finals after giving birth to Olympia.
“She was fresh at 30, much fresher than other players and champions in the past,” Navratilova said. – We would have played many more games at that time. But the physical ailments meant that she had taken many breaks.”
That enduring excellence — a tribute to Williams’ deep drive, phenomenal talent and innate belief in her own abilities — will be a big part of her legacy, no matter how far she goes in what is definitely her last US Open.