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Serena Williams broke the mold for being a world-class athlete

Unlike others who defined themselves by the need to win, she already has a full life outside tennis

If winning 23 Grand Slams was Act 1, imagine what Serena Williams could do in Act 2.

Earlier this month, Williams, 40, announced her retirement from professional tennis with a personal essay and a luscious photo spread in Vogue.

For several years, she has been stuck at 23 Slams, a number that tethers her to Margaret Court on paper despite the stratospheric difference in their careers and athleticism. But just as Williams has become a beacon for her sport and for racial and gender equity in it, we’ve also watched her continuously break the mold of what it means to be a world-class athlete.

Williams, at this point, is regarded, with equal amounts awe and love, as the GOAT — greatest of all time. Of course, that’s a title that will not fade — even the Gen Z athletes whose style she inspired and now faces across the net will struggle to match what she has accomplished. Equally difficult will be matching her accomplishments off the court.

It used to be common for sports journalists to pooh-pooh athletes who had interests outside of winning. But being an athlete, even the GOAT, is a profession. It needn’t be one’s entire personality. Williams graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, became a respected fashion entrepreneur and tenniswear iconoclast, a Vogue cover model, a mother, a fluent French speaker, a venture capitalist, an advocate for maternal health equity, a supporting character in a Beyoncé visual album, a best friend to the Duchess of Sussex.

What a blessing for her and for us that Williams is a well-rounded, multifaceted person instead of a gifted tennis automaton. In doing so, she has created a new path for athletes seeking greatness, one that is sorely needed. Too often, the single-minded pursuit of such epic goals require trade-offs that turn into collateral damage, like a balloon payment on a mental health mortgage. Just look at her friends, her heroes, the Black icons of generations past.

It’s easy to see why Williams and golf great Tiger Woods have such a long-standing rapport. Both were Black whiz kids in country club sports, trained and brought up in the ’90s by fathers who were shaped by the cruelties and ubiquity of American racism. They soared on the wings of their fathers’ dreams, and came of age wrestling with the faults of the men who made them. The same cool, single-minded focus Woods brought to golf eventually festered into a self-destructive knot, one that he is still working to undo. Similarly, Williams has a more complicated relationship with her father Richard, than does her sister Venus, a dynamic illustrated in the film King Richard. Williams’ career shift shows herself and the world that there is much about life that is fulfilling and worth experiencing, even if she has to abandon something as singular as the pursuit of a record-setting 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

That experience of being world-stoppingly talented is often isolating. “I didn’t want this power,” Williams’ friend Beyoncé intones on her latest album, Renaissance. “I ain’t want it.” There are commonalities here that extend well beyond the surface of wealth and fame. Like Williams, Beyoncé, too, grew up with a father whose imperious passion and protectiveness was crucial to vaulting his little Black girl into superstardom. Perhaps becoming mothers to little people who look like them has allowed Williams and Beyoncé to hold some grace and forgiveness for themselves for not having the same physical capabilities they possessed in their 20s. Remember when Beyoncé swore in Homecoming that she would never push herself again the way she did in the run-up to Coachella? That was after she gave birth to twins.

These two, like Woods, are figuring things out on a world stage, in a way that separates them from Michael Jordan, the reigning sports icon of their childhoods. Of the many themes that emerged from ESPN’s early pandemic hit The Last Dance, perhaps the most memorable was that Jordan, for all of his talent, was pathologically competitive. He could be selfish and petty to the point of fostering resentment in his teammates. There didn’t seem to be anything else in the world he loved as much as winning. He was the GOAT at basketball, but not much else. Age and retirement appear to have mellowed Jordan. Certainly he’s been more vocal about racial justice in the past few years than he ever was during his basketball heyday.

The cliché of the irascible, resentful retired athlete who struggles with a loss of identity once they’re no longer able to play themselves is a long-standing one, both in real life and the popular culture that reflects it, from Tom Hanks as an alcoholic former baseball wunderkind in A League of Their Own to Melissa Rauch’s washed-up Olympian in The Bronze.

It would have been so easy for Williams to follow that path as she pursued that record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title. She’s come frustratingly close on several occasions — in 2018 in the US Open final against Naomi Osaka, in 2019 in the same event against Bianca Andreescu. Against Simona Halep in the 2019 Wimbledon final. That one Grand Slam title has been so close and so elusive, ever since she won the Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in 2017.

But as a leader of her generation, Williams is crafting a new archetype, that of the well-rounded celebrity and professional athlete. She is able to write her own story, exit on her own terms, and still have plenty left to accomplish and celebrate. 

Here’s to a Black excellence that offers an abundance of stretchiness and purpose to a polymath athlete leading not just from the baseline, but beyond it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.