By Terrance Turner
Aug. 9, 2022
Serena Williams is “evolving away” from the game of tennis.
Williams announced the news in a cover story in Vogue magazine. She told Vogue’s Rob Haskell: “I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution.
I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family.”
Williams told Haskell:
This morning, my daughter, Olympia, and I were on our way to get her a new passport before a trip to Europe. We’re in my car, and she’s holding my phone, using an interactive educational app she likes. This robot voice asks her a question: What do you want to be when you grow up? She doesn’t know I’m listening, but I can hear the answer she whispers into the phone. She says, “I want to be a big sister.”
Olympia says this a lot, even when she knows I’m listening. Sometimes before bed, she prays to Jehovah to bring her a baby sister. (She doesn’t want anything to do with a boy!) I’m the youngest of five sisters myself, and my sisters are my heroes, so this has felt like a moment I need to listen very carefully to.
Believe me, I never wanted to have 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. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia. I was one of those annoying women who adored being pregnant and was working until the day I had to report to the hospital—although things got super complicated on the other side. And I almost did do the impossible: A lot of people don’t realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017. But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.Serena Williams
Williams admitted: “I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis. Alexis, my husband, and I have hardly talked about it; it’s like a taboo topic. I can’t even have this conversation with my mom and dad. 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. The only person I’ve really gone there with is my therapist! One thing I’m not going to do is sugarcoat this. I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way. Ashleigh Barty was number one in the world when she left the sport this March, and I believe she really felt ready to move on. Caroline Wozniacki, who is one of my best friends, felt a sense of relief when she retired in 2020.
Praise to these people, but I’m going to be honest. 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. 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. Some of the happiest times in my life were spent waiting in that hallway in Melbourne, and walking out into Rod Laver Arena with my earphones in and trying to stay focused and drown out the noise but still feeling the energy of the crowd. Night matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows. Hitting an ace on set point.”
Williams began her professional career in 1995 (at age 14!) and has since racked up 73 career titles and 23 Grand Slams, along with four Olympic gold medals (according to ESPN). Now, she’s preparing to wind down.
This story will be updated.
UPDATE (AUG. 29, 2022): In her first match at the U.S. Open — expected to be the last last tournament of her remarkable playing career — Williams overcame a shaky start to overwhelm Danka Kovinic 6-3, 6-3 on Monday night in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium (located in the Queens borough of New York City). After winning straight sets, Williams was greeted by thunderous applause; she got a standing ovation from a crowd that numbered over 23,000, according to the AP.
Oprah narrated a tribute video:
“Thank you for showing us how to be graceful, powerful, fearless,” Oprah said. “Thank you for turning center court into center stage — for bringing the house down. Thank you for showing us what it means to come back and for never, ever backing down. Thank you for changing the face of the game, inspiring the next generation.”
In attendance were Williams’ husband — Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian — and their 4-year-old daughter Olympia Ohanian. Olympia’s hair was in braids with white beads — a tribute to the look Williams had when she won her first U.S. Open in 1999.
Williams was just 17 when she won her first Grand Slam title. Now, 23 years and 22 Grand Slams later, she’s preparing to say goodbye.
UPDATE (Sept. 2, 2022): After winning her matches on Monday and Wednesday, tonight Serena Williams lost in the third round to Ajla Tomljanovic. After losing the first set 7-5, Williams rallied to win the second, 7-6. And even as Tomljanovic built up a commanding 5-1 lead, Williams fought back, pushing her opponent to one match point after another (and several break points). It would take Tomjanovic six match points to induce that last error from Williams, a final stroke into the net. Williams’ ferocious effort unfortunately wasn’t enough. Williams handled her loss with notable composure. But the minute the postgame interview began, she dissolved into tears.
“These are happy tears — I guess. I don’t know,” Williams said as she emotionally thanked her parents, husband Alexis Ohanian, daughter Olympia, and her many supporters. But she kept family first: “It all started with my parents, and they deserve everything. I’m really grateful for them.” She shouted out her legendary sister: “I wouldn’t be Serena Williams without Venus. Thank you, Venus.” (Venus wiped away tears as she watched from the stands.)
“It’s been a fun ride,” Williams concluded, in what sounded a lot like a goodbye. Asked if she would reconsider retirement, Williams smiled and answered, “I don’t think so, but you never know.”