Serena Williams is set to redefine ‘retirement’
Just as she reshaped tennis for Black people, Williams will bend the definition of what it means to end an athletic career
I was at a function recently when somebody I’d lost touch with asked if I had retired. The question, rather the R-word, was like an arrow in my heart.
“Retirement” was not a word, was not even a concept I accepted or acknowledged. I immediately went on the attack, telling the individual that since leaving The New York Times, I’d been working at a terrific ESPN website, Andscape, went on and on about the work I was doing, before realizing how the mere mention of the R-word had set me off. It felt like a death knell.
This is the sentiment that resonated with me as I read Serena Williams’ eloquent essay in Vogue announcing that she was stepping away from tennis.
She wrote about how much she abhors the word “retirement,” how it was not anything she discussed in any depth with anyone outside her therapist.
She wrote: “I have never liked the word retirement. 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. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
The upcoming US Open will likely be Williams’ last appearance, certainly as a participant in a Grand Slam event. She did not say whether she and her sister Venus will bow out together. All we know for sure is that one of the most phenomenal careers in sports history is ending.
For all my hand-wringing, there are significant differences between the artist and the athlete when it comes to “retirement.” The artist — the writer, the singer, the musician — can perform at high levels for several decades. I attended the Newport Jazz Festival last month and watched Ron Carter, the legendary bassist, perform at age 85. His only concession to age was sitting down to play the upright bass rather than standing.
No matter how much the athlete’s mind and spirit are willing, the body reaches a point at which it can no longer respond. The last few years have been grueling for Williams. I wanted desperately to see her tie or break Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. In pursuit of that record, Williams overcame a pulmonary embolism that occurred after the emergency cesarean section delivery of her daughter and a second embolism to play in a Grand Slam final, which she lost. Tying Court was simply not meant to be.
The athlete’s body has a finite shelf life. As Williams said in her essay, she wishes the ride would not have to end.
She wrote: “There is no happiness in this topic for me. 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. I hate that I must be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn. I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
Williams finally determined that she was unwilling to make the enormous sacrifices required to continue playing at a championship level. A posse of hungry young tennis players who grew up idolizing Serena and Venus are now knocking at the door. And like Williams, they take no prisoners.
Rather than fight her way out of a corner, Williams has chosen to gracefully step away. She did so on her own terms and in her own words.
In the coming weeks, months and years, we will talk about Williams’ transformational virtues as a tennis player — her combination of power and grace and her competitive fire. What she also did was inspire athletes — female athletes, Black female athletes — to define themselves, to speak their minds in their own unique way.
Everything she did, from the way she dressed to the way she used her muscular physique to crush opponents to the essay in Vogue announcing her evolution away from tennis, has been self-defining.
She has inspired generations of young girls, young girls of color, Black girls who chose tennis because of Williams. For me, tennis was the Williams sisters.
Retirement for an athlete is a kind of career death that is not easy to face. No matter how spectacular your athletic feats may have been, when you retire, you become yesterday’s news. Life goes on.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement in February 2022. It took less than six weeks for Brady to decide to unretire and reenter the arena. I wonder if Williams will have a similar change of heart. Will she be able to resist the siren’s song to come back? She has been the center of attention for so long that the idea of stepping away must be terrifying. An entire identity is wrapped around a career and a sport.
And if you’re Serena Williams, you also have had to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. She has inspired generations of young girls, young girls of color, Black girls who chose tennis because of Williams. For me, tennis was the Williams sisters.
So many older Black women saw Williams as a daughter or granddaughter. She has been the sports equivalent of Beyoncé and is her generation’s Aretha Franklin, singing loud and long and leaving no uncertainty about the way she felt. She was a Black woman dominating a sport that was supposed to be outside the reach of African Americans. She brought us inside the country club.
What will tennis in the United States be without Williams? The sport will continue as it has for years, but women’s tennis will not be the same.
I suspect that the essay in Vogue will be Williams’ only official announcement. She will play at the US Open and perhaps simply move on.
I’m eager to follow the chapters Williams will write in the coming years. Raising her daughter Olympia will be a lifetime adventure. And like her career, Williams’ venture capital business, Serena’s Ventures, could have a trailblazing impact on women of color.
I’m also curious to see how Williams will adjust to life after sports. A number of years ago when quarterback Brett Favre was contemplating retirement, his agent told him to be sure that this was what he wanted to do because he would never again experience the rush from the roar of the crowd as he had in an NFL stadium. Williams will experience one more roar whenever she decides to have a final public celebration of her career.
Meanwhile, she has eased my discomfort about the R-word by redefining the concept — much as she redefined women’s tennis — and making one thing very clear: Serena Williams is not retiring, she’s simply evolving to a higher plane.