Serena Williams never did conform to anyone’s expectations. She’s not about to change that now, as she inches toward the end of a career that made her one of the greatest and most influential athletes of her time — or any other.
She and her older sister Venus launched their tennis ambitions on rundown courts in Compton, where they didn’t have the manicured country club lawns or teams of coaches that many of their competitors took for granted. They were two Black girls who were pushed by an insistent father on a journey that would take them to the top of the predominantly white tennis world, where elegant Venus would win seven Grand Slam singles titles and perfectionist Serena would win 23, the second-most by a male or female player. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Not that way.
Serena didn’t look like an athlete was supposed to look according to the narrow-minded standards that once prevailed. She wasn’t slender and willowy and ponytailed. She was muscular, powerful, a fearsome server. She and Venus wore beads in their braided hair, true to their heritage.
The tennis establishment didn’t know what to do with them or their outspoken father, Richard. Or their beads. They responded by winning. And winning. And winning again, all the while opening doors for Black kids and others who might have thought tennis was closed to them because of their skin color or economic status.
Just as she forged her own unlikely path from Compton to tennis immortality, she’s writing her own narrative for a departure that appears imminent.
Speaking in an essay published Tuesday in the September issue of Vogue magazine — a day before her second-round match in a tournament in Toronto that’s a warmup to the U.S. Open — Williams strongly hinted she will soon bid farewell. She didn’t outright say the Open, which starts Aug. 29, will be her finale. But she’s clearly thinking beyond the next match and to the next stage of a fascinating life. She’s not retiring. She’s moving on. Moving up. Moving.
“I have never liked the word retirement. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution,” she said in the essay. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
She has made inroads into the universes of fashion, sports ownership — she’s a part owner of the Miami Dolphins and NWSL Angel City — and financial investing, with a portfolio that leans toward startups led by women and people of color. And as she approaches age 41 next month, she hears the clock ticking each time her nearly 5-year-old daughter Olympia drops hints about wanting to be a big sister. She was two months pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open, and she and her husband Alexis Ohanian have been trying for a year to have another child. “I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out,” she said.
That final decision won’t be easy. “There comes a time in life when we have to decide to move in a different direction,” Williams said in an Instagram post. “That time is always hard when you love something so much.
“My goodness, do I enjoy tennis. But now, the countdown has begun. I have to focus on being a mom, my spiritual goals and finally discovering a different but just [as] exciting Serena. I’m going to relish these next few weeks.”
She saw Ashleigh Barty walk away from tennis earlier this year with no regrets while ranked No. 1 in the world. She knows her friend Caroline Wozniacki looked forward to retirement. Williams doesn’t have that same peace. Before speaking to Vogue she hadn’t discussed her post-tennis life with many other people.
“I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis. It’s like it’s not real until you say it out loud,” she said. “It comes up, I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat and I start to cry. I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way.
“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 have to 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.”
In the essay, Williams also was unusually frank in discussing her losses in the four Grand Slam event finals she reached after returning from maternity leave.
She lost to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in 2018 and to Naomi Osaka in a chaotic U.S. Open final, a match in which Williams lost focus while arguing with the chair umpire. She lost the 2019 Wimbledon final to Simona Halep and the 2019 U.S. Open final to Bianca Andreescu. She lost all four of those finals in straight sets.
Her legacy had been established long before those galling losses but she acknowledged she wanted to tie and break Margaret Court’s pre-Open Era record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. Obviously I do. But day to day, I’m not really thinking about her,” Williams said. “If I’m in a Grand Slam final, then yes, I am thinking about the record. Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help.
“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually, it’s extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”
She added, “I never wanted to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. 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. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
It doesn’t matter if the curtain falls on her career at the U.S. Open or if she continues for another month or two or six. Being unconventional has been her superpower, and it will be fascinating to see what she does with it next.