While Serena Williams said she doesn’t like the word retirement, the 23-time Grand Slam singles and four-time Olympic gold winner is ready to evolve outside of the world of tennis. It’s been just over two months since she appeared on the September 2022 cover of Vogue and announced in a personal essay that she was ready to move away from the sport she dedicated nearly her entire life to and instead spend her time on other aspects of her career, as well as nurturing her family life.
In early September 2022, Williams played what is likely her final tennis match during the U.S. Open, delivering an emotional and heartfelt speech to the crowd about her exit from the sport and her gratitude for her steady yet growing fanbase over the decades. Her announcement left fans stunned and many questioning what the future of the sport would look like without her presence. Because legacy of Williams has been unparalleled, inspiring a new generation of players both on and off the court and cultivating the last change in the sport she dominated for so long.
Her decades-long career
Williams got her start in tennis when she was just three-years-old. She started to practice the sport at a court not far from her home in Compton, California, under the guidance of her father and, later, coach Rick Macci. She was trained on the courts alongside her older sister, Venus Williams, each honing their craft in the years leading up to going pro. Venus herself was just 14-years-old when she went professional in 1994, carving a path for her younger sibling in the world of tennis when she started playing the next year professionally in 1995.
At just 17 years old, Williams took home her first Grand Slam title in 1999 at the U.S. Open. In the years that followed, she tacked on additional accolades, including famously winning the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon in 2002 by defeating her older sister in the finals of each tournament. For several years, Venus and Serena would face off in the finals of these global tournaments and dominate the competition. Still, all the while, the duo also found themselves working as a unit, winning 14 women’s doubles Grand Slams throughout their careers, too.
Ultimately, the youngest of the two would find herself with 23 total Grand Slam singles wins over the course of over two decades, but she never let fans forget who helped her get to where she is today. Williams has been gracious to her older sister for being a role model, following in her footsteps, and learning what to do–and what not to do–in her matches, making her the player she is today. On the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, following what is believed to be her final match of tennis at the U.S. Open, she told the crowd in a post-match interview, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus, so thank you, Venus. She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”
Her retirement from tennis
After decades of playing tennis at the professional level, Williams shocked fans when she announced that she would be stepping away from the sport, at least at the professional level. In the lengthy essay, Williams shared her reasoning, which revolved around her desire to grow her family, be present for her 5-year-old daughter Olympia, and exercise her talents and passions outside of professional sports. But along with her desire to achieve her goals off of the court, she candidly discussed her hesitancy to shift away from the sport that she has excelled at for so many years.
“I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis,” Williams wrote in the essay, explaining that she couldn’t even talk to her family about the topic, including her husband, Alexis Ohanian. “It’s like it’s not real until you say it out loud. It comes up, I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat, and I start to cry.”
While Williams cited that other athletes in her sport have felt thrilled about the prospect of hanging up their rackets and retiring, she said she found “no happiness” in the idea of retirement. She candidly wrote, “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,” she wrote. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at this magazine when it comes out, knowing that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis. This sport has given me so much. I love to win. I love the battle. I love to entertain. I’m not sure every player sees it that way, but I love the performance aspect of it—to be able to entertain people week after week.”
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Her lasting impact on the sport
Fans and professional athletes have adopted one common title for Williams: the Greatest of All Time. Williams was named Female Athlete of the Decade by the Associated Press in 2019 for a good reason, after all.
Throughout her decades-long career, she earned the honor of AP Female Athlete of the Year in 2002, 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2018 for her expertise on the court. Spanning her entire career, Williams has famously won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one title short of tying the record held by Margaret Court. On the court, her athletic prowess, talent, and sheer determination have been celebrated countless times, along with the competitive edge and spirit she brought to the sport.
“When the history books are written, it could be that the great Serena Williams is the greatest athlete of all time,” Stacey Allaster, chief executive for professional tennis at the U.S. Tennis Association, said. “I like to call it the ‘Serena Superpowers’–that champion’s mindset. Irrespective of the adversity and the odds that are facing her, she always believes in herself.”
Williams is revered not just for her athleticism on the court but for changing the course of how female athletes can conduct themselves in the sport. In her essay, she reflected on this legacy and its impact on women in professional sports, explaining, “They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all.”
And yet, her lasting impact doesn’t end there. Her entire career, alongside her older sister, Williams fought against the lack of diversity in tennis and women’s sports in general. Williams became the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a Grand Slam singles title when she won the U.S. Open in 1999. She endured countless racist encounters throughout her professional career, both from spectators and fellow tennis professionals. Throughout it all, Williams continued to dominate while fighting for gender and racial equality, including equity in pay, and against the double standards for men and women in the sport.
Though Williams was inspired by her sister, she thus became inspirational fodder for a new generation of young tennis players, including Coco Cauff, Naomi Osaka, Frances Tiafoe, and Taylor Townsend. Osaka opened up about the legacy that the Williams sisters left on tennis, telling ESPN ahead of the U.S. Open, “I think that her legacy is wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. Like, she changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis to the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done.”
“I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, and her whole family. I’m, like, very thankful to her,” Osaka, who has become an advocate for mental health in sports, added. “I also was trying to figure out how to sum it into words. I honestly think that she’s, like, the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to, like, make [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport. It’s just really an honor just to watch her play.”
Her life outside of tennis
On September 1, 2017–two months before the couple tied the knot–Williams and Ohanian welcomed their first child together, a daughter named Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Williams faced a high-risk pregnancy with Olympia, undergoing a C-section after experiencing a pulmonary embolism during labor. Unfortunately, after giving birth, her healing journey was no other after a large hematoma was found in her abdomen due to hemorrhaging at her C-section wound, coupled with postpartum depression.
Williams expressed wanting to grow her family as part of her reasoning for retiring, explaining that she didn’t want to be pregnant and be an athlete for a second time, preferring to focus on one at a time. In a press conference following her loss in round three of the U.S. Open this year, Williams said her career has been challenging on Olympia, and she was excited by the prospect of having more time to spend with her as a self-proclaimed “super hands-on mom.”
Outside of Williams’ dedication to being a mother to her 5-year-old daughter, Olympia, she’s also found her space in the business world through her company, Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm with a particular focus on early-stage companies. Founded in 2014, Williams called the firm “small but growing,” with six teams across the United States. Her investing journey began nearly a decade ago, sparking her love for what she described as the “early stage” of other companies. Serena Ventures has funded several companies, including Esusu, Impossible Foods, and Tonal. In addition, 78% of the Serena Ventures portfolio includes companies that women and people of color have started.
Separate from Serena Ventures, Williams has several business pursuits, including her jewelry line Serena Williams Jewelry and her clothing brand, S by Serena. She also recently released her first children’s book, “The Adventures of Qai Qai,” drawing inspiration from her daughter’s doll of the same name.
While there’s little chance we’ll see Williams back on the court in a professional capacity (though, never say never), her legacy in tennis will live on as she continues to carve a name for herself outside of the sport she knows.