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SERENA CRAFTS THE PERFECT FAREWELL — EVOLVING, NOT RETIRING
When so many legends struggle to leave sports, Williams authors a 3,000-word masterpiece on how to exit with purpose and dignity, wanting tennis to be a footnote to her motherhood and global impact
The greats know how to advance humankind. They inspire, influence, galvanize. They plunder the opposition for decades, at least making Father Time blush. Better still, they trigger an emotion in all of us, ranging from fascination to admiration to worship, in a world we otherwise don’t trust, prompting us to invest energy and time and money into their journeys.
But so few of the greats, rather shockingly, know how or when to say goodbye. Their command of life wanes. I experienced it one bittersweet summer in Chicago, when Michael Jordan should have been content with the ultimate ending to the most exquisite of careers — eyes the basket, elevates, shoots, holds the arm aloft, extends the wrist for eternity — but preferred to return three years later with the, ugh, Washington Wizards. Every time I asked him why, after another workout in a West Side gym, he grunted and maybe cursed and said he had to “scratch” the old itch.
He was powerless. He knew how to electrify Planet Earth, but he had no clue how to turn out the lights. Jordan wasn’t alone in his helpless bubble, lost in twilight like so many legends, and this is where Serena Williams is separating herself from the regal pack. She ruled her domain, too, like the others. Yet she understands, unlike so many others, exactly how to fade off — with elegance and purpose — and her exit from the most accomplished career in women’s sports is nothing short of a master class.
There she is this week, on the cover of Vogue, hands on hips in a form-fitting Balenciaga gown as blue as the ocean behind her, as her four-year-old daughter, Olympia, playfully holds a long train in the sand. “SERENA’S FAREWELL,” goes the headline. Inside the pages, Williams pens an essay on why she’s leaving tennis. Only she refuses to call it a “retirement,” as all she’s doing is ending her competitive run after the U.S. Open, where we can dream that the stars will align next month and allow her to depart on top. Her 23 Grand Slam titles aren’t the only championships she plans on winning in life. Why let tennis define her entire being? She picks a more progressive word, writing, “Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.” She’ll be 41 soon, after all.
She wants to serve as a role model, an ambassador, a trail blazer, a social compass in complicated times.
She wants to kick more ass as an investment capitalist and fashion icon, pouring her creativity into Serena Ventures.
And she wants to make another baby with her husband — say, tonight — and this time, she doesn’t want to tempt death while giving birth because she’s trying to combine motherhood and tournament play.
“There comes a time in life,” she writes, “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 gonna relish these next few weeks.”
Reading her explanation is almost heartbreaking. She wants to keep playing the sport she has known since her formative years, when she and sister Venus broke down every racial barrier in what was a predominantly white, country-club game from their urban roots in Compton, with the help of a persistent father since immortalized in cinema. But chasing one more Slam — though it would tie her with Australian Margaret Court atop the all-time list — is insignificant amid the entirety of her impact, the realities of her gender and the focus of her vision ahead. It is she, not husband Alexis Ohanian, who is wheeled into a room in the maternity ward. In revealing they’re trying to have a second baby, Williams underlined that a mother must think beyond the traditional norms of male-dominated sport. She can’t play until her mid-40s like Tom Brady. So why go on?
“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 writes. “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. These days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. 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. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia. But I’m turning 41 and something’s got to give. I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out. … These days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”
Her sporting legacy, beginning in the ‘90s, was established years ago, when she held all four major titles simultaneously — twice. Her crushing serve and exploding groundstrokes, unlike those seen before or since in the women’s game, stirred passions within the Black community and led kids to pursue the game. From Sloane Stephens to Madison Keys to Naomi Osaka to the emerging Coco Gauff — who might be ready to win a Slam as the truest heir — the sport is filled with talented players who wouldn’t have considered tennis if they hadn’t watched the Williamses. “She’s the reason I play tennis,” Gauff said. “Tennis being a predominantly 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.”
It was away from the court where Serena made her biggest statements. She has transcended sports by crossing into a man’s world, into a white world, with seeming ease. She’ll continue to throw her financial weight behind ventures and travel in exclusive social circles. Her business superpowers are just beginning to be flexed, especially when the function is rallying women.
“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 writes. “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.”
She wore catsuits. She spoke out against injustice. At times, she was a tempestuous brat, but then, so is Novak Djokovic, who may go down as the male player with the most Slams. She changed the way women played tennis and attacked all sports, in the same era when another athlete of color, Tiger Woods, was revolutionizing golf. Now, her daily matches will involve anything but a racket.
“I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis,” she writes. “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.”
In a gown, with 3,000 of her own words, she authors her latest assault on our senses. Tomorrow’s greats should be taking notes.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.