Why Serena Williams’s Retirement Is Different

Her name is synonymous with tennis itself.

A photo of Serena Williams with a black backdrop tossing a ball
Julian Finney / Getty

Unless Serena Williams pulls off the kind of feat typically reserved for Hollywood endings at this year’s U.S. Open, 23 is the number of Grand Slam singles titles with which she will retire. It is a number that makes her the all-time winningest, slammiest singles champion, of any gender, in the modern incarnation of tennis (Rafael Nadal did recently inch closer to her record, capturing his 22nd at this year’s French Open, but still). Somehow, 23 is also one (one!) short of the record Williams—the winner of nearly $100 million in prize money from every surface and circumstance known to the sport—and millions of fans not-so-secretly hoped for.

The truth is, 24 was the number to beat. Twenty-four is the number of times the Australian tennis player Margaret Court won a Grand Slam singles title before retiring, in 1977. But any comparison falls comically short: Court won the majority of her slams before the Open Era of tennis (in which pros and amateurs compete against one another) began, in 1968. She competed during the time of wooden racquets, absent the dominance of topspin as the de facto style of play, and well before serves regularly crested over 100 miles an hour.

Williams doesn’t want to say she’s retiring from tennis. In her own words, on the cusp of her 41st birthday, she’s ready to “evolve away” from it. She has explained why for the September issue of Vogue. The most significant reason behind her decision to leave tennis appears to be her desire to expand her family with her husband, Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder. At this stage in life, she cannot have another child and play tennis like Serena Williams at the same time. The woman who has broken every barrier and defied the boundaries of the game has at last collided with the same fate of countless women before her: She simply can’t have it all.

The pages of Williams’s Vogue story are framed with photographs of earlier appearances in the magazine, portals into periods of brilliance and zeitgeist across more than two decades. There she is with Venus Williams, her sister, in matching striped gowns on a sofa in 1998, one year before Serena won her first Grand Slam, at the U.S. Open, at 17 years old. Next, an exquisite, bodysuited lunge in 2003, taken shortly after her historic “Serena Slam” (four Grand Slams in a row, but not within a calendar year). And finally there she is, resplendent in red in 2015, the year she won her 19th Grand Slam at the Australian Open, her 20th at the French Open, and her 21st at Wimbledon. Twenty-two came one year later, also at Wimbledon. And then there was the illustrious 23, at the 2017 Australian Open, when she was 35 years old and two months pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. Five years later, it is Olympia who matters most.

For professional athletes—particularly those anointed with GOAT status—retirement, in act and idea, is a funny thing. These beings, light-years of talent and discipline and stamina beyond us mortals who admire them, are, technically, leaving the day jobs that made them rich and famous. In almost all cases, this pivotal change occurs when these people have many decades of life left to live.

Some star athletes fade comfortably, purposefully, into the background. Take Pete Sampras. Before Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, it was Sampras who obliterated the standards for greatness in how men’s tennis was played, how many slams (14) could possibly be won. Sampras now spends his days married with children, blissfully removed from anything resembling celebrity. Another tennis great, Andre Agassi, opted to show how his career had actually felt. In 2009, three years after he retired, he published Open, a go-for-broke memoir on the sense of imprisonment he experienced during his life as a professional tennis player. It was, as The New York Times noted, “one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete.” There were no platitudes on hard work or a champion’s mentality, no dithering over the necessary sacrifices or the payoffs to come. It looked squarely in the face at the deadening repetition inherent to training, the exhaustion in the travel, the physical loneliness of life on tour. It was perhaps the first time we got a true sense of a player’s reality, whether they won one major tournament or 25. Other phenoms, including Naomi Osaka, have since followed suit, speaking candidly about the toll their work takes on their mental health.

Occasionally, some GOATs have false-launched their retirement, only to return shortly afterward. Tom Brady walked away from football in February 2022, after 22 seasons in the NFL. Six weeks later, he confirmed that he was returning for another snap. Michael Phelps retired from swimming in 2012, fresh off four gold medals at the London Olympic Games. He’d won six in Athens in 2004, and eight in Beijing in 2008. He was back in the pool by 2014, then retired “for real” in 2016 after Rio, and five more golds. Michael Jordan abruptly retired from basketball in 1993, citing his desire to play baseball after the murder of his father. He came back in 1995, retired for the second time in 1999, then came back again in 2001 before finally retiring for good in 2003.

Williams’s career feels different, not just in what she has accomplished but in what she has endured––two decades’ worth of public commentary on her body, her race, her attitude, her anger, her wardrobe, her very womanhood.

In the Vogue essay, her sense of an ending is clear. The prose is touched with notes of melancholy. She suggests that if she was more like Brady, a man, then she’d have less of a crossroads to face—she could stay on the court, have her (fictional, counterfactual) wife carry another child. The reality is that Williams wants another baby; her daughter wants a sibling. Notably, Williams also referenced Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish former world No. 1 tennis player who retired after the 2020 Australian Open at the tender age of 29. Wozniacki had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years earlier, and when she announced her plans to leave the sport in 2019, her words contained the sentiment Williams would later share. There was more in life she wanted to do. She hoped to start a family, and in order to do so, tennis had to go.

In the end, 23, not 24, may be the quantitative measure of Grand Slams that Serena Williams leaves us to count. But there is no metric for what she has upended and reimagined and blasted through, no recognizable contours to apply to her greatness, no way to assess her role in advancing social equity. Like other pioneers of quasi-“niche” sports, such as Tiger Woods and Tony Hawk, Williams’s name is synonymous with the thing she helped revolutionize. Even when she finally puts down her racquet, Williams won’t really leave us. She may not be able to dually serve the gods of tennis and motherhood, but generations of young athletes will continue to pick up racquets of their own because she inspired them to do so. A legacy like that is more than numbers.