Serena Williams Faces Another Challenge

What will the greatest player in women’s tennis do next?

A photo of Serena Williams swinging a tennis racket
Cameron Spencer / Getty

Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time, but that hardly captures her impact. Even calling her one of the most dominant athletes in history feels confining. She and her sister Venus represent one of the most improbable success stories in American history. But that also doesn’t capture the implausibility of two little Black girls from Compton, California, rising to become the top tennis players in the world.

So if her first-round U.S. Open match with Danka Kovinic tonight is indeed her last match ever at the Open (or if this is her last tournament appearance, period) Williams can retire knowing that words cannot fully describe what she’s meant for the sport, for women—especially Black women—and for American culture. Think of how Alvin Ailey remade modern dance in his own image. Williams has done the same for tennis. An entire generation of women witnessed Williams unapologetically transforming everything within her reach.

Williams indicated in a first-person essay for Vogue a few weeks ago that she is planning on moving away from tennis following this year’s U.S. Open. In her essay, Williams insisted that she is not retiring. Instead, she said, she is evolving.

“I have never liked the word retirement,” Williams wrote. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution.”

Williams’s passion for her sport appears to be as vibrant as it was when she began her professional career at 14 years old, but in the past two years, injuries and age have overruled her desire to play. A torn hamstring suffered at Wimbledon in 2021 kept her off the court for almost a year. In 2020, she withdrew from the French Open because of a lingering Achilles-tendon issue, which ultimately shut down her season. When she beat Nuria Parrizas-Diaz at the Canadian Open earlier this month, it was her first singles-match victory in 14 months.

As Williams approaches her 41st birthday, in September, she seems to have concluded that tennis’s demands are running counter to the other plans she has for her life. She wants to expand her family and dive even deeper into her numerous business enterprises, which include a venture-capital firm, Serena Ventures, that raised $111 million and manages a portfolio of 60 start-ups.

The idea of leaving tennis clearly pains her. “I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis,” Williams wrote in Vogue. “Alexis, my husband, and I have hardly talked about it; it’s like a taboo topic. I can’t even have this conversation with my mom and dad. It’s like it’s not real until you say it out loud. It comes up, I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat, and I start to cry.”

Characterizing all of this as evolution presumably takes the sting out of her leaving a sport to which she has devoted her life. Yet I hope Williams also recognizes that evolving—and growing and redefining the world around her—is precisely what we’ve seen her do for the past 27 years.

Who else could win a major title while two months pregnant, as she did at the Australian Open in 2017? Who else could make jaws drop worldwide by wearing a dynamic black catsuit at the French Open? (Williams’s attire at the 2018 tournament eventually prompted the French Tennis Federation to ban catsuits.) Who else could study fashion design while in the prime of her tennis career, and then go on to create successful clothing and jewelry lines? Who else could completely alter the perception of what older tennis players could accomplish by winning 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles after 30 years old? Who else could make being strong and powerful look so graceful?

Williams’s tennis résumé alone guarantees her GOAT status, but what moves her into icon territory is the impact that she’s made by using her voice so fearlessly.

Four years ago, Williams opened up about the life-threatening complications she experienced after doctors performed an emergency Cesarean section when she gave birth to her daughter. Williams was short of breath and told a nurse that, based on her detailed knowledge of her own medical history, she felt she needed a CT scan, but was initially rebuffed. She later told her doctor, who thankfully listened. That’s when doctors learned she had several blood clots in her lungs. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related complications, so Williams’s public sharing of her ordeal became a powerful tool in the ongoing conversation about racial disparities in health care.

“Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the health care that I have—and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same health care, without the same response, it’s upsetting,” Williams told the BBC.

Williams advocated for herself—and dominated her sport—without ever compromising her Blackness. In 2000, when she was the sixth-ranked player in the world, she pulled out of a South Carolina event to support the NAACP’s economic boycott of the state over the Confederate flag being flown at the statehouse. In 2016, after two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers in separate incidents a day apart, Williams wrote a heartfelt Facebook post about fearing for her 18-year-old nephew’s life. Aghast that Black people were still routinely subjected to such state-sanctioned cruelty, she wrote: “Have we not gone through enough, opened so many doors, impacted billions of lives? But I realized we must stride on—for it’s not how far we have come but how much further still we have to go.”

Williams voluntarily took on these fights for social justice and equity, even as she was constantly being put in the crosshairs of misogyny and racism. Detractors have likened her to a monkey and a monster truck. She has been called a man, and of course subjected to racial slurs.

Her armor against these sickening attacks was to become the best player the sport has ever seen. Her challenge going forward will be using her platform as powerfully as she’s done throughout her tennis career.

Williams has been a cultural icon for so long, it’s hard to imagine that she would be anything less once she’s finally done with tennis. As inspiring as watching her play has been, seeing her evolve will be just as rewarding.