Earlier this summer, I was at the French Open with a group of college students who want to work in sports media. It was a Friday, and the men’s semifinals were the big story, but we got there early and went to Court Suzanne Lenglen, where a women’s doubles match was playing.
It was two American teams: Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula vs. Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend.
Those students above the red clay didn’t know it at first, but they were looking at Serena Williams’ legacy in real time. Three of those doubles players have a Black parent, and if you ask Gauff, Townsend, or Keys about how they got into tennis, the story starts with a Williams sister. When Venus and Serena Williams started playing tennis, the sport was overwhelmingly white — and it still is.
Except in American women’s tennis. That’s legacy.
Serena Williams has announced she is evolving beyond tennis, and I will agree with her that so many words that might traditionally be used to tell a retirement story have no place in her’s. How do you retire from a career that sparked thousands of Black girls to pick up a tennis racket and start playing, that redefined the term G.O.A.T. with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, that opened up a white shoe world, and put an exclamation point on a sentence that begins with the words Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson?
It’s not a question, because you can’t. It’s just who she is. There will be another iteration, but this is so far beyond picking up a racket and then putting it down again.
What you can say about Serena Williams is that she defied every label and expectation that came before her. It started in her own family, where she was the little sister that was better than her elder. From not playing “enough” USTA juniors tournaments but being better than the players who did. It continued to her sense of style, from the beads she wore that scandalized some segments of the stodgy tennis establishment.
She and Venus were booed by an American crowd at Indian Wells in 2001. There were rumors that her father decided which sister would win when they faced each other, a rumor that managed to be both racist and sexist at the same time. Her family was not always welcomed, and the first years were isolating. And yet Serena was too good, too competitive to be deterred.
Serena Williams sparked a generation of young women who grew up to face her on the WTA Tour. It was an added layer of psychological overgrowth for many of those young women to hack through before a match. Can I defeat my childhood idol? Should I?
Serena was real. She had moments that were hard to watch, like yelling at a linesperson or losing her game and her composure against Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open. In over two decades of play, those moments were raw, and they were rare.
She’s leaving the main draw at age 40 and with a daughter. She won the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant. She developed life-threatening blood clots after delivering Olympia and then went on to reach three more Grand Slam finals. For younger fans, this can’t be overstated.
Women on the tour were geriatric players at 27 in the late ‘90s. Serena, Venus, and their generation blew through those expectations. Having a baby and continuing to play — so few players had been able to do that. Having a baby and remaining a favorite in the draw? Even fewer.
You might as well have predicted that Serena would be playing tennis on the moon in 2022.
Serena Williams played, lived, and is going out on her own terms. Terms that weren’t even conceivable when she won her first US Open title in 1999.
She might not want a lot of fanfare, but the rest of us do, and she has had the grace to give us all enough time to prepare reverential retrospectives for her final US Open.
But before we get too choked up over a video of a smiling Serena with braces, or the iconic catsuit at the baseline, let’s keep in mind that we haven’t seen her last act. Serena is breaking new ground all the time when it comes to the business of women’s sports and supporting minority-owned businesses. She has a stake in the NWSL’s Angel City and the NFL’s Dolphins. She has a venture capital fund that focuses on Black and women-owned businesses.
She was the best woman in the history of tennis, and in the conversation for the best player ever. But she was never only about tennis. For Serena Williams, the world was bigger than the tennis court. She changed the game with her power and with her competitiveness.
There are more games to change, conventions to challenge, and kids’ birthday parties to plan.
As she put it, time to evolve.