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TOO MANY SPORTS GREATS AWKWARDLY UNRETIRE — PLEASE, NOT YOU, SERENA
Maybe she’s kidding, but after absorbing an unprecedented sports love-in, Williams is leaving the door cracked to a competitive tennis return, which would defeat the purpose of “evolving” in life
The song she should be “karaoke-ing” — among her stated plans on this first weekend of Serena 2.0 — is the same one that accompanied her tearful farewell inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. “Simply the best, better than all the rest …” the lyric played on, with nothing left on a tennis court to elevate her already untouchable legacy.
Who didn’t nod to the beat as the lyrics ripped through an adoring New York like her final 117-mph ace — at age 40, five years after a complicated childbirth almost killed her — then echoed across an America where she empowered generations with sass and thumping groundstrokes straight outta Compton, turning even racists into admirers? When she waved and twirled in her trademark pirouette, sparkles on her black dress and in her hair, who wasn’t waving back in a goodbye love-in seemingly topping all others in a world that embraces timeless athletes like divine beings?
Simply the best. Serena Williams can drop the mic, too, at the singalong of her choice. The high cannot get any higher, the moment cannot get any better. She said it herself, after exiting what better had be her final U.S. Open and Grand Slam event, losing in the third round to the 48th-ranked female, Ajla Tomljanovic, an Australian 11 years younger. If we’re being realistic, her swan song could not have soared to more spectacular and fitting levels, even if she lost her last match when no one ever deserved to win a finale more. She fought, shrieked, heaved, saved match points and refused to quit when her mind and legs begged otherwise. She never was going to win her 24th major title, much as millions tried to speak the fairy tale into existence. A Friday evening in September 2022 was her coronation, her lifetime achievement fete, her alarm setting to move on.
“It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been in my life. I’m grateful to every single person that’s ever said, ‘Go, Serena!’ in their life,” she said on the court, through sniffles and eye-wiping, after a week when almost every imaginable celebrity came to celebrate her — did Bill Clinton seek out Dr. Ruth for a particular reason? — as a football season waited and shifted a prime-time telecast for her. The country paused to salute an all-time great. The country, as I recall, didn’t pause for days in a mass salute to Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps. Nor will it pause when Tiger Woods and LeBron James depart, pausing now for Tom Brady only to see how much of his future $375-million Fox fortune goes to Gisele in the divorce settlement.
So let’s hope and perhaps pray Serena leaves it at that. You know, as the kids say, peace out. Writing last month in a Vogue magazine essay about “evolving” away from tennis, she left a distinct impression she was shifting to a new life of parenthood and entrepreneurship and no longer would be tethered to a racket and sneakers. But after absorbing an outpouring of warmth almost over the top in its gush quotient — imagine 24,000 people, raising colored cards to form gigantic “We Love Serena” messages in the stadium — Williams enjoyed the adoration just enough to prompt questions. Might her “evolution” rotate back to tennis next year? She had two chances Friday, as midnight neared, to shut down all speculation about returning at 41. On the court, she was asked if she might reconsider her decision.
“I should have started (training) sooner. I don’t think so, but you never know,” she said.
Asked later in her news conference, she referenced the next Grand Slam event on the calendar: “I always did love Australia.”
And she hardly sounded finished when she lauded herself as “such a fighter,” saying, “I feel like I really brought something, and bring something, to tennis. A different look, the fist pumps, the just crazy intensity.” Notice her flip in tenses from past to present.
She’s kidding, right? Maybe, maybe not, because her passion for tennis and obsession with winning can’t be placed tidily in an attic after a quarter-century of success and sweat in sports and popular culture. As she wrote in Vogue, “I don't know how I'm going to (react) that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis. This sport has given me so much.” During her two Open victories, she rediscovered her ability to move around the court, with her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, overheard shouting from her private box, “You’re everywhere!” Her thunderclap serve, her crisp volleys, her resilience in clutch moments — it all came back to her. Was it enough to pull her away from daughter Olympia, now 5, for a Grand Slam toe-dip or two? Her response wasn’t definitive. “Clearly, I’m still capable,” she said. “I think I’m ready to be a mom, explore a different version of Serena. I have such a bright future ahead of me. Technically, in the world, I’m still super young, so I want to have a little bit of a life while I’m still walking.”
It’s her life, not ours, so we’re in no position to lecture. But we can nudge her away from the precipice. It was Woods who encouraged Williams to pour her heart into this Open, but he might be the first to advise her to stay away given his hard-to-watch golf struggles after his life-threatening SUV crash. Brady retired for only 40 days and seems to have angered his wife, who reportedly has left him and fled to Costa Rica; would Ohanian be more or less understanding? Returning after the ultimate ending, a sixth NBA championship and buzzer-beater in 1998, didn’t work out for Jordan, who left a forgettable, regrettable memory with the Washington Wizards. Muhammad Ali departed the boxing ring for a year, then was humiliated in his final two fights. Brett Favre unretired into a life of scandal.
If Serena lost her desire to practice after becoming a mom, the chances of recommitting herself in the future seems unlikely and unwise. Besides, she already has said goodbye to everyone, right, including the father who groomed her and the sister who journeyed with her?
“Thank you daddy, I know you're watching. Thanks mom. It all started with my parents. They deserve everything,” Serena said. "Everyone that's here, that's been on my side, for so many years, decades. ... These are happy tears, I guess. I don't know. And I wouldn't be Serena if there wasn't Venus, so thank you Venus.”
The world also has said goodbye to HER. What, she’d come back in a few months after so many post-loss tributes from the rich pantheon of fellow sporting greats:
“You’re literally the greatest on and off the court. Thank you for inspiring all of us to pursue our dreams. I love you little sis!!!!!” wrote Woods.
“THANK YOU!! You’re so damn DOPE!!” wrote James, trotting out the G.O.A.T. and applause emojis.
“It’s truly been fun to watch Serena not only change the sport of tennis, but more importantly, how she’s helped empower the next generation,’’ Phelps wrote. “Her tennis accomplishments speak for themselves, but one of the things I admire is she simply doesn’t quit. On or off the court.”
The words that must resonate in her mind are those projecting her future beyond tennis. Such as Magic Johnson’s tweet: “Congratulations, Serena for an inspiring career! Cookie & I are so excited for you. I remember when we talked about you becoming an entrepreneur. Now I look forward to watching you grow in business!”
And this from pioneer Billie Jean King, who tapped Williams on the shoulder as she left the court through the tunnel: “Her incredible career made its mark on tennis history. And yet her greatest contributions may be yet to come. Thank you, @serenawilliams. Your journey continues.”
And Michelle Obama: “How lucky were we to be able to watch a young girl from Compton grow up to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. I'm proud of you, my friend — and I can't wait to see the lives you continue to transform with your talents.”
Her transition has a chance to be as beautiful as the heart gestures she makes with her clasped hands. She must not interrupt her future work with another whim in Melbourne or New York. What should be next for Serena? How about sitting back and appreciating one of the young girls who grew up idolizing her? Coco Gauff, 18, is positioned to win her first Slam, maybe as soon as next weekend in a wide-open field. It wasn’t long ago when Gauff was texting her friends from Arthur Ashe Stadium, thrilled to be watching Serena. “I was trying to flex to my friends that I had courtside seats, and now I’m on the court,” she said, laughing.
She also was among the notables posting hosannas late Friday night, after three-plus hours of one last legacy dose. “Serena, THANK YOU. It is because of you I believe in this dream,” Gauff wrote. “The impact you’ve had on me goes beyond any words that can be put together and for that I say thank you, thank you, thank you, GOAT!”
To come back after so many valedictions would be wrong, fraught with turbulence and injuries and disappointment. No one wants to see another unhinged episode, such as when she told lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi, “I swear to God, I’ll f-king take this ball and shove it down your f–king throat!.” Or when she verbally took down the chair umpire when he caught her taking illegal peeks at her coach.
The only reason to unretire — or, devolve from evolving — would be to win No. 24 and tie an all-time record, held by the ancient Margaret Court, that is regarded frivolously. On her Twitter avatar, Williams writes of her life purpose: “Living, Loving and working to help you.” It’s time to carry on with that mission, far from the tennis court.
Her tears from the other night have been swept off the hardcourt by the squeegee, replaced by the sunshine of her new dawn. She can find many songs about evolution on karaoke machines around the world she owns.
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.