IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The era of Serena Williams making miracles on the court is coming to an end

Elite male athletes aren't expected to choose between their families and their careers.
Image: Serena Williams
Serena Williams plays a forehand during her Women's Singles fourth round match against Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan on day eight of the 2021 French Open at Roland Garros in Paris, on June 6, 2021.Julian Finney / Getty Images file

The impossible is happening. Serena Williams, quite possibly the greatest athlete to ever live, has said she will retire from tennis after playing the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29. She announced the stunning news in a personal essay published Tuesday in Vogue. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” Williams writes. While we should laud Williams for ending, on her terms, “a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis,” we should also, as she does, acknowledge the sadness.

Serena Williams, quite possibly the greatest athlete to ever live, has said she will retire from tennis after playing the U.S. Open.

“There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams writes. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it.” Williams is a competitor willing to battle anyone, no matter their age, to remind us of her greatness. Leaving the sport she remade in her image is undoubtedly difficult, but after overhearing her daughter, Olympia, wishing for a sibling, Williams, 40, realized that if she wants to have more children, she should do so sooner rather than later. She had life-threatening complications after giving birth to Olympia in 2017, and the older she gets, the higher her risk.

“I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete,” writes Williams, who won 2017's Australian Open while pregnant. “I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.” In many ways, Williams’ retirement announcement is a meditation about the double standards mothers are subjected to, no matter which career they choose. In fact, her essay is as much about the cultural pressure put on mothers as it is about the retirement itself. “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,” she writes. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”

The 45-year-old Brady’s ability to retire to spend time with his family and then unretire 40 days later is only possible because he has a wife who can handle the child-rearing. He also doesn’t have to carry those children or face a culture that treats mothers as if they aren’t the best stewards of their own bodies. Instead, successful male athletes whose careers have been as long — think Brady, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — aren’t questioned about what their devotion to their sport costs their families. There’s no societal guilt associated with prioritizing career over family nor does having a family prompt the public to question if they can continue performing at an elite level.

After Williams gave birth in 2017, there were questions about how good she could be. She played in four Grand Slam finals after she returned to the game in 2018 and for some of that time has enjoyed a Top 10 world ranking. Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix, who said Nike offered to pay her 70% less to endorse their products because she was pregnant, was dogged with the same questions. Not only did she decide instead to launch her own shoe brand, but in last year’s games in Tokyo, she won a bronze and a gold, breaking Carl Lewis’s record to become the most decorated U.S. track and field Olympian in history.

We can now revel in the brilliance Williams brought to the court and to our broader culture.

Aside from the layered reasons she’s leaving the sport, we can now revel in the brilliance Williams brought to the court and to our broader culture. We should all bow down before her as a thank-you for giving us so much. Watching Williams play was like watching Jesus walk on water: beautiful, graceful and full of inexplicable power. When she was at her absolute best, it could bring you to tears. Now, as she pivots toward the life she desires, one that isn’t about winning championships but about taking the best possible care of herself and her family as she can, we’ll have the memories of her greatness to tide us over.

We all knew this day would come. After all, Williams turned pro in 1995 at age 14. Do you know how long ago 1995 was? TLC’s “Waterfalls” was at the top of the charts. “Braveheart” and “Batman Forever” were being shown in theaters. That feels like a completely different world, but since winning her first Grand Slam in 1999, Williams has been a cultural mainstay, ascending to the top of her sport and remaining there and, outside her big sister Venus, with very few challengers to the throne. It’s impossible to imagine tennis without the Williams sisters, their braided beads and colorful outfits, and their unimpeachable confidence.

Both on and off the court, the sisters embodied what it means to be elite athletes: winning titles, breaking records and remaining unflappable, even in the face of relentless doubt, criticism and racism from the sport’s spectators. May we never forget the scrutiny both sisters were subjected to, especially after they began winning Grand Slams. There was the racist chanting at Indian Wells, which caused the sisters to refuse to compete in that tournament for more than a decade. There was the gendered racist rumor that the muscular Serena Williams isn’t a cisgender woman. There was an unhealthy obsession with her decorum on the court and the constant criticism that the anger she sometimes displayed was “unprofessional” and cast a shadow over the sport.

Through it all, Williams kept her eye on the prize: 23 Grand Slam singles trophies, 14 Grand Slam doubles trophies and four Olympic gold medals — and putting on for Black women through it all. She’s never shied away from discussing the pitfalls society creates for Black women, whether it was speaking openly about the colorism she’s faced or her voicing a universal Black woman complaint that Black women have to be twice as good to get half as far. And now, as she leaves tennis, she’s turning her attention toward Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. She says in Vogue that 78% of the companies Serena Ventures invests in were started by women and people of color. That’s who Serena Williams is.

Though we won’t see Williams on the court anymore, there’s a growing number of Black girls and women, including Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, who are rising through the tennis ranks while prioritizing their mental and emotional health because Williams showed them they could. It’s impossible to sum up such an incredible career. There aren’t enough words. But if the next set of Williams’ life resembles the first set, we should expect to see a strong, powerful, graceful, shining star — because that’s who she is and always will be. Our GOAT, the greatest of all time, from now to eternity.

CORRECTION (Aug. 10, 2022, 9:26 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Serena Williams's age. She is 40, not 41.