The greatest female athlete of all time—check that: perhaps the greatest athlete of all time—has been thinking a lot about the reason she’s vowed to hang up her racket for good.
“Olympia doesn’t like when I play tennis,” Serena Williams says plainly about her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. When Williams told Olympia, who turns 5 on Sept. 1, that she was soon to be done with the life that made her an inspiration to millions, Olympia’s reply was as joyful as her mother’s celebrations after so many Grand Slam wins: a fist-pumping “Yes!”
“That kind of makes me sad,” says Williams, leaning forward in her chair in the library of a New York City hotel. “And brings anxiety to my heart.” No kid understands their parent’s absence. But Williams has spent the last few years of her incomparable career tormented by what she’s been sacrificing in order to keep going. “It’s hard to completely commit,” says Williams, “when your flesh and blood is saying, Aw.”
Photo by Paola Kudacki, TIME
Olympia wants to be her big sister. In August she dreamed of having a big sister and blew on some dandelion. “This is what I have to deal with, on a daily,” Williams says, with the commiseration familiar to all parents of young kids. And yet choosing this path requires a calculus that superstar fathers don’t have to make. Tom Brady can unretire and retire at 44. LeBron, father of 3, can get a $97.1million contract extension for two years at 37. “It comes to a point where women sometimes have to make different choices than men, if they want to raise a family,” says Williams, who turns 41 in late September. “It’s just black and white. You make a choice or you don’t.”
Biology may have forced her hand, but Williams insists she’s at peace with her decision. “There is no anger,” she says. “I’m ready for the transition.” She’s thought about what’s next, without knowing how it will feel. Williams will redirect her curiosity to Serena Ventures, her investment company. She’ll kindle her spiritual life. She’ll evolve as a mom. “I think I’m good at it,” she says of parenthood. “But I want to explore if I can be great at it.”
She is a master of greatness. No tennis player, male or female, has won more major championships in the Open Era—the period starting in 1968 when the Grand Slam tournaments allowed professionals—than Serena Williams. (Australia’s Margaret Court owns the all-time record, with 24 Grand Slams.) Williams was 30 when she won 10 of 23 titles. This is a period in which most players lose their ranking or retire. But for all that Williams accomplished on the court, it’s what she has meant off the court that makes her the most consequential athlete of the 21st century, full stop. Together with Venus Williams, she overtook a country-club sports with resistance to two Black sisters, one from Compton, Calif. She helped change behavioral expectations for female athletes, and by extension women in all workplaces, by exuding power and passion—and bringing her full self—to her hard-court office. She changed the rules of body image. When pundits, racists, and no small number of idiots slurred her physical appearance or laughed her off as “masculine,” she doubled down on photo shoots and flexes.
The very fact of her existence sparked many important conversations. In 2018, her run to the Wimbledon final—months after Olympia’s delivery led to a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and hematoma that required multiple surgeries—inspired millions of moms. The chatter quickly changed. A male umpire punished Williams for his verbal outburst during the U.S. Open final on September 23rd. It was argued that women could get away with worse. Serena lost against Naomi Osaka. This sparked debates over decorum and fair play as well as gender discrimination and unconscious biases.
This is all from Serena Williams’ tennis match.
Osaka, who has since won three more Grand Slams, never would have picked up a tennis racket if it weren’t for Williams. “I remember as a kid watching in awe, and I was so happy to be seeing a strong Black woman on my screen,” she tells TIME. “Even though she is retiring, her legacy definitely lives on through Coco [Gauff]Sloane [Stephens]Madison [Keys]These women are among the most successful in their sport. Serena has been voted the most outstanding female athlete. Forget female athlete, I mean athlete. No one else has changed her sport as much as she did and against all odds.”
When informed of Osaka’s comment during our late-August conversation in New York, Williams demurs when the talk turns to being the GOAT. This is true up to a point.
“I don’t know any other person that has won a Grand Slam or a championship in the NBA or anything else nine weeks pregnant,” she says. When she is serious, she laughs. “A two-week event. “A two-week event. I relied heavily on my brain. An athlete isn’t just about what an animal you are physically, like a specimen. It’s using everything. It’s your mind, body and everything. Doing that for twenty years. You can do it in front of people who are against you, and they will play their best game ever. Each and every time.
“You can come to your own conclusion after that.”
The Williams sisters’ backstory is filled with tales of their competitive exploits. “There was a rage, a burning desire that I’ve never seen in two little girls, ever,” says Rick Macci, one of Venus and Serena’s earliest coaches. “And I haven’t seen to this day.”
Richard Williams’ genius was that while many tennis dads suffocate their children, he nurtured their talent while encouraging them to be kids. On rainy days at Macci’s Florida training facility, they’d study in his office. Richard, against the advice of no one, kept them from the junior circuit. Macci heard the sisters praise their performances after they played Hall of Famer Billie Jean King (and Rosie Casals) in an exhibition doubles match. He looked around. Venus, aged 11, and Serena (aged 10), were conversing with a doll.
Richard Williams, right, with his daughters Serena and Venus, in Compton (Calif.) 1991.
Paul Harris—Online USA/Getty Images
They kept their childhood curiosity alive and learned multiple languages to broaden their interests. Serena has dabbled in finance, fashion, acting, and film production; she’s on track to be the first female athlete to become a billionaire. She was criticized for her work outside of tennis early in her career. The critics claimed she was distracted and unfocused. Again, she rewrote rules. She expanded her repertoire and avoided the burnout that had plagued so many other players. She has been the only woman to win more matches during her last years.
Williams was 17 when she won the U.S. Open 1999. “It really was a different mentality of tennis,” says Chris Evert, the 18-time major champion. “Go for everything. When you’re under pressure, you’re more aggressive.” Serena and Venus wore braids with beads in those early years on tour. The seemingly insignificant fashion choice had meaning. “The tennis world was not accustomed to seeing Black girls show up adorned in styles reflecting their African American cultural heritage, as opposed to wearing styles that blended in,” says Tera Hunter, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.
Serena raises the 1999 U.S. Open championship trophy, her first major win. She was 17
Ron C. Angle—Getty Images
Around this time, Williams met Kelly Rowland, of the pop supergroup Destiny’s Child, after a concert. Rowland was invited to attend a match. “I’m going to be really good,” Serena vowed. “As soon as she said that, I was struck by her,” says Rowland. She remembers sitting in Serena’s box during a match when she was down a set. “You feel an energy shift,” says Rowland. “Something’s about to happen. It’s watching her get upset, like we do as people, and then understanding she had to calm herself down. This was because she created a safe space that she could control for herself. Then it became about her dominating. It was unapologetic. It wasn’t anything she had to say. It was like, ‘I’m about to take back what’s mine.’ I needed that at that moment. It fed me.”
It wasn’t just women who were taking cues from the Williams sisters. An aspiring young race-car driver named Lewis Hamilton tuned in to Venus’ and Serena’s matches from a public housing complex north of London. “They were the two most inspiring sports figures for me,” Hamilton tells TIME. “Especially growing up in my sport, where I’m the only person of color, seeing these two prominent figures, also the only people of color, really gave me a lot of confidence that I can do something similar. It’s not impossible.” Hamilton, winner of seven Formula One titles—tied for the most in history—has also bonded with Serena. For spontaneous karaoke, she carries an extra microphone in her bag.
Williams’s tour has been rife with downturns for the past quarter-century. Her injuries included ankle, knee and shoulder pains, as well as foot, Achilles, hip, leg, shoulder, elbow, foot, heel, and shoulder problems. Yetunde Price died in 2003 in an accidental shooting. She was her younger sister. At the 2009 U.S. Open, she was accused of threatening to kill a lineswoman following a foot-fault phone call. Williams later apologized. Williams then won two additional Slams in the following year.
Williams was scheduled to fly in February 2011 from Los Angeles to New York City before heading to London to attend a fashion show. At the last moment, Williams cancelled her plans and chose to spend time with Venus. On the night of her flight, she was taken to hospital for breathing problems. She had a pulmonary embolism as well as blood clots in her lungs. Williams is certain that she would have been killed if she were stuck on a cross country flight. She thought she’d never play tennis again. She won ten more Grand Slams.
Williams didn’t hesitate to continue playing when she found out that she was pregnant shortly before the 2017 Australian Open. “Athletes understand their bodies a million times better than the rest of us,” says her husband Alexis Ohanian, the venture-capital investor who co-founded Reddit. “Even though the doctor was like, ‘You’ve got to take it easy, 100° heat, yadda, yadda, yadda,’ Serena said, ‘I got this.’ As long as she was confident, I was confident.” Serena told her husband that she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament because she knew it was best to get off the court quickly, for the baby’s sake. The victory broke Steffi Graf’s Open Era record for major titles.
Beating Maria Sharapova for Olympic Gold in 2012 at Wimbledon—where she won seven singles titles
MediaNews Group/Bay Area New/Getty Images
Venus lost to Serena in the 2017 Aussie Open. This was an Open-Era record for Open-Era 23 majors. While pregnant, she won.
Clive Brunskill—Getty Images
Continue reading: Serena Williams Talks About Motherhood, Her Complex Comeback and Being Selfish
Allyson Felix was also there. In 2018, the Olympic gold medalist found out she was pregnant. She continued competing and training. Felix suffered a similar fate to Williams: she developed preeclampsia, which led to her untimely delivery. Felix watched Williams’s struggle to get back on track, reaching the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals within the first year of Olympia being born. Felix took a similar course. Felix was 35 when she won bronze in the 400m and a relay silver at Tokyo Olympics. This made her the most decorated Olympic track-and track athlete of all time. “I was heavily influenced by her experience and the comeback,” says Felix. “Here’s the ultimate example that it can be done.”
Williams embraced causes she believed in privately as her professional career progressed. She played in 2015 at Indian Wells again, the prestigious tournament in Southern California that she boycotted from 2001 because she felt a racial undercurrent. FANS were upset that Venus withdrew from the semi-final against Serena due to injury. They were certain that Richard was responsible for that outcome. Williams was able to raise funds for Equal Justice Initiative as part of her return. This nonprofit is dedicated to fighting mass imprisonment and improving racial equality. “Serena’s not just taking punches, she punches back,” says Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. “She’s showing us that it’s important to belong to yourself. And ultimately, that is a motto that I hold, and I know that’s one that she lives.”
Rowland gets emotional when asked to try to describe her friend’s influence on the world. “For a young Black girl, to have survived the spaces where she wasn’t welcomed, she stood with pride,” says Rowland. “She represented for all of us, when we couldn’t do it. It was okay to her. Claim your space. Even when they’re calling you words you’d never answer to. You can’t hear it. Don’t hear it. I’m sure that was a very scary place to be. But to do it, and you’re the first to do it, the way you do it, with our own unique way, with style and with grace and unapologetic of your greatness,” Rowland says, choking back tears. “That took some … f-cking guts.”
It’s been too long a road for Williams to shy away from what she’s done. She is proud of it. Deservedly. Unapologetically. And it’s rooted in what she knows she and her sister have meant to the sport that they both shaped and were shaped by. “We changed the game of tennis,” Williams says. “We changed how people play, period. People never attacked. People don’t take balls too early. These people have never been able to serve like that. People never had to play so hard to beat two Black girls from Compton.”
Off the court, she’s helped transform beauty standards—often in the face of crass scrutiny and racist tropes. “A lot of people feel they’re not pretty or they’re not cute enough because their skin is dark,” she says. However, she claims she didn’t feel that way even though she was subject to a lot of shots. “I think people could feel my confidence, because I was always told, ‘You look great. Be Black and be proud.’” There were too few prominent examples in mainstream sports before Venus and Serena—and few who won so regularly and defiantly. “Giving them that confidence, that motivation, is something that has literally never been done,” says Williams. “You don’t let the world decide beauty. You don’t have to be thicker, thinner, or more beautiful than me. Curves are now in fashion. Butts have become very fashionable. I’m trying to lose mine, and people are trying to get mine.”
After winning the tournament in Auckland, Olympia and Olympia share a moment together.
Hannah Peters—Getty Images
Williams’ signature is her knowledge and insight in self-deprecating packages. She will tell you what her legacy means if you press a bit. “Confidence and self-belief,” Williams says. “And teaching other Black kids, in particular Black girls, they can do it too.” She lists the current top Black players on the pro tour—like Osaka and Gauff and Stephens—who represent the emergent generation. “No one has ever been able to tell such an inspiring, authentic story,” she says. “You live through my mistakes. My ups are yours. You’ll live through mine. You have to deal with the complications and comebacks. And it’s also a tale of never letting anyone write your story. Many people relate to this. Never compromise your authenticity. Be who you really are. You are loved. It’s a big tale of self-love.”
Continue reading: Serena Williams: 100 Women Of The Year
She is a comedian. She shed some tears during her final days playing pro tennis. While working on the Aug. 9 match, she cried. VogueEssay announcing her departure. Walking away from the game you’ve spent your life mastering is complicated. And it’s not to say she won’t decide to pick up a racket again one day. But her next chapter isn’t about finding 5 o’clock somewhere. Serena Ventures invested in over a dozen companies worth more than $1B, including Master-Class and Impossible Foods. Nearly 80% of the companies in the firm’s portfolio were founded by women or people of color. “It’s not that I’ve lost my passion for tennis,” Williams says. “I just get more love and more joy out of what I do in the VC space.”
However, she believes that expanding her family is the most important thing. “I can’t imagine my life without my sisters,” she says. “When I look at Olympia, I’m really not performing at my peak, by not trying harder to give her that sibling. Coming from a big family, and coming from five, there’s nothing better.”
Williams was excited to prepare for the U.S. Open. She felt like her game had finally improved after so long. Before Wimbledon, where she lost in the first round, Williams hadn’t played in a year because of a hamstring injury. It’s bittersweet to see the progress. “I can see my improvement, and I’m like, Dang, I’ll be good in January,” she says. Williams might yearn for an Australian Open return trip. “I’m already thinking that,” Williams says. Would she? “I’m not doing that,” she insists.
It’s over. New York City, one last dance. Millions of people need one last message. “Thank you so much,” she says. “I am so overwhelmed. It’s just been an incredible, incredible ride, and I’m so happy that you guys are on it with me.” Williams stops, nods, brings her hands together, in the blessed position. “And I love you.”
—With reporting by Mariah Espada and Julia Zorthian
Kesha McLeod styled the hair; Dhairius did the hair; Nadia Tayeh applied make-up
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