Serena Williams makes her choice: family over tennis

Serena Williams never lived up to anyone’s expectations. She’s not going to change that now as she nears the end of a career that has made her one of the greatest and most influential athletes of her time – or anyone else.

She and her older sister Venus started their tennis ambitions on seedy courts in Compton, where they didn’t have the manicured country club lawns or coaching staff that many of their competitors took for granted. They were two black girls who were pushed by a persistent father on a journey that would take them to the top of the predominantly white tennis world, where the elegant Venus would win seven Grand Slam singles titles and the perfectionist Serena 23, the second highest of a male or female player. That should not happen. Not like that.

Serena didn’t look like what an athlete should look like by the narrow-minded standards that once prevailed. She wasn’t slim and willowy and with a ponytail. She was muscular, strong, a fearsome servant. She and Venus wore pearls 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 her pearls. They answered with a win. And win. And win again, while opening doors for black kids and others who might have thought tennis was closed to them because of their race or economic status.

Just as she forged her own unlikely path from Compton to tennis immortality, she writes her own narrative for a departure that seems imminent.

In an essay published in Vogue magazine’s September issue on Tuesday – the day before her second-round match at a tournament in Toronto that is a warm-up match for the US Open – Williams strongly hinted that she will be saying goodbye soon. She didn’t say outright that the Opens, which begin August 29, will be her finals. But she’s clearly thinking beyond the next game and the next phase of a fascinating life. She’s not retiring. She goes on. Rising up. Moving.

“I’ve never liked the word retirement. Perhaps evolution is the best word to describe what I intend to do,” she said in the essay. “I’m here to tell you I’m evolving away from tennis and towards other things that are important to me.”

She has traversed the universes of fashion, sports ownership — she co-owns the Miami Dolphins and the NWSL Angel City — and financial investing, with a portfolio focused on startups led by women and people of color. And as she approaches 41 next month, she can hear the clock ticking every time her nearly 5-year-old daughter Olympia hints that she wants to be a big sister. She was two months pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open and she and husband Alexis Ohanian have been trying for another child for a year. “As an athlete, I definitely don’t want to get pregnant again. I have to be two feet into tennis or two feet out,” she said.

This final decision will not be easy. “There comes a time in life when we must choose to go in a different direction,” Williams said in an Instagram post. “This time is always tough when you love something so much.
“Gosh, do I enjoy tennis. But now the countdown has started. I need to focus on being a mother, my spiritual goals, and finally discovering something different but just [as] exciting Serena. I will enjoy these next few weeks.”

She saw Ashleigh Barty walk away from tennis with no regrets earlier this year while ranked at world No. 1. She knows her friend Caroline Wozniacki was looking forward to retirement. Williams doesn’t have the same peace. Before speaking to Vogue, she hadn’t discussed her post-tennis life with many other people.

Serena Williams laughs during a training session in June 2022.

Serena Williams laughs during a training session in June 2022.

(Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

“I hesitate to admit to myself or anyone else that I need to stop 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 a lot of people are excited and looking forward to retirement and I really wish I felt that way.

“For me there is no happiness in this subject. I know it’s not customary to say this, but I feel a lot of pain. It’s the hardest thing I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep telling myself I wish it was 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 was also unusually open about her losses in the four Grand Slam finals she reached after returning from maternity leave.

She lost to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in 2018 and to Naomi Osaka in a chaotic US 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 US Open final to Bianca Andreescu. She lost all four finals in straight sets.

Her legacy was long before those bitter losses, but she admitted she wanted to tie and break Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles before the Open Era.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want this record. Obviously I do. But I don’t really think about her every day,” Williams said. “If I’m in a Grand Slam final, then yes, then I think about the record. Maybe I thought about it too much and that didn’t help.

“The way I see it, I should have had more than 30 Grand Slams. I had my chances after coming back from childbirth. I went from a cesarean to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I went through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Should, could, would. I didn’t show up like I should or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually, it’s extraordinary. But these days, when 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 man I wouldn’t be writing this because I would be out there playing and winning while my wife does the physical labor to add to 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 US Open or if she carries on for another month or two or six. Being unconventional was her superpower and it will be fascinating to see what she does with it next. Serena Williams makes her choice: family over tennis

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