Unless Serena Williams pulls off the sort of feat sometimes reserved for Hollywood endings at this 12 months’s U.S. Open, 23 is the variety of Grand Slam singles titles with which she’s going to retire. It’s a quantity that makes her the all-time winningest, slammiest singles champion, of any gender, within the trendy incarnation of tennis (Rafael Nadal did not too long ago inch nearer to her file, capturing his twenty second at this 12 months’s French Open, however nonetheless). Someway, 23 can also be one (one!) in need of the file Williams—the winner of almost $100 million in prize cash from each floor and circumstance identified to the game—and hundreds of thousands of followers not-so-secretly hoped for.
The reality is, 24 was the quantity to beat. Twenty-four is the variety of instances the Australian tennis participant Margaret Court docket gained a Grand Slam singles title earlier than retiring, in 1977. However any comparability falls comically quick: Court docket gained nearly all of her slams earlier than the Open Period of tennis (during which professionals and amateurs compete towards each other) started, in 1968. She competed throughout the time of picket racquets, absent the dominance of topspin because the de facto model of play, and effectively earlier than serves usually crested over 100 miles an hour.
Williams doesn’t need to say she’s retiring from tennis. In her personal phrases, on the cusp of her forty first birthday, she’s able to “evolve away” from it. She has defined why for the September problem of Vogue. Probably the most vital cause behind her resolution to go away tennis seems to be her need to increase her household together with her husband, Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder. At this stage in life, she can’t have one other baby and play tennis like Serena Williams on the identical time. The lady who has damaged each barrier and defied the boundaries of the sport has eventually collided with the identical destiny of numerous girls earlier than her: She merely can’t have all of it.
The pages of Williams’s Vogue story are framed with images of earlier appearances within the journal, portals into intervals of brilliance and zeitgeist throughout greater than 20 years. There she is with Venus Williams, her sister, in matching striped robes on a settee in 1998, one 12 months earlier than Serena gained her first Grand Slam, on the U.S. Open, at 17 years outdated. Subsequent, an beautiful, bodysuited lunge in 2003, taken shortly after her historic “Serena Slam” (4 Grand Slams in a row, however not inside a calendar 12 months). And at last there she is, resplendent in pink in 2015, the 12 months she gained her nineteenth Grand Slam on the Australian Open, her twentieth on the French Open, and her twenty first at Wimbledon. Twenty-two got here one 12 months later, additionally at Wimbledon. After which there was the illustrious 23, on the 2017 Australian Open, when she was 35 years outdated and two months pregnant together with her daughter, Olympia. 5 years later, it’s Olympia who issues most.
For skilled athletes—notably these anointed with GOAT standing—retirement, in act and thought, is a humorous factor. These beings, light-years of expertise and self-discipline and stamina past us mortals who admire them, are, technically, leaving the day jobs that made them wealthy and well-known. In virtually all instances, this pivotal change happens when these individuals have many many years of life left to dwell.
Some star athletes fade comfortably, purposefully, into the background. Take Pete Sampras. Earlier than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, it was Sampras who obliterated the requirements for greatness in how males’s tennis was performed, what number of slams (14) might probably be gained. Sampras now spends his days married with kids, blissfully eliminated from something resembling celeb. One other tennis nice, Andre Agassi, opted to indicate how his profession had really felt. In 2009, three years after he retired, he revealed Open, a go-for-broke memoir on the sense of imprisonment he skilled throughout his life as an expert tennis participant. It was, as The New York Occasions famous, “one of the passionately anti-sports books ever written by a famous person athlete.” There have been no platitudes on arduous work or a champion’s mentality, no dithering over the required sacrifices or the payoffs to return. It seemed squarely within the face on the deadening repetition inherent to coaching, the exhaustion within the journey, the bodily loneliness of life on tour. It was maybe the primary time we bought a real sense of a participant’s actuality, whether or not they gained one main match or 25. Different phenoms, together with Naomi Osaka, have since adopted swimsuit, talking candidly concerning the toll their work takes on their psychological well being.
Often, some GOATs have false-launched their retirement, solely to return shortly afterward. Tom Brady walked away from soccer in February 2022, after 22 seasons within the NFL. Six weeks later, he confirmed that he was returning for an additional snap. Michael Phelps retired from swimming in 2012, contemporary off 4 gold medals on the London Olympic Video games. He’d gained six in Athens in 2004, and eight in Beijing in 2008. He was again within the pool by 2014, then retired “for actual” in 2016 after Rio, and 5 extra golds. Michael Jordan abruptly retired from basketball in 1993, citing his need to play baseball after the homicide of his father. He got here again in 1995, retired for the second time in 1999, then got here again once more in 2001 earlier than lastly retiring for good in 2003.
Williams’s profession feels totally different, not simply in what she has completed however in what she has endured––20 years’ value of public commentary on her physique, her race, her angle, her anger, her wardrobe, her very womanhood.
Within the Vogue essay, her sense of an ending is evident. The prose is touched with notes of melancholy. She means that if she was extra like Brady, a person, then she’d have much less of a crossroads to face—she might keep on the courtroom, have her (fictional, counterfactual) spouse carry one other baby. The fact is that Williams needs one other child; her daughter needs a sibling. Notably, Williams additionally referenced Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish former world No. 1 tennis participant who retired after the 2020 Australian Open on the tender age of 29. Wozniacki had been identified with rheumatoid arthritis two years earlier, and when she introduced her plans to go away the game in 2019, her phrases contained the sentiment Williams would later share. There was extra in life she needed to do. She hoped to start out a household, and so as to take action, tennis needed to go.
Ultimately, 23, not 24, would be the quantitative measure of Grand Slams that Serena Williams leaves us to depend. However there is no such thing as a metric for what she has upended and reimagined and blasted via, no recognizable contours to use to her greatness, no strategy to assess her function in advancing social fairness. Like different pioneers of quasi-“area of interest” sports activities, resembling Tiger Woods and Tony Hawk, Williams’s identify is synonymous with the factor she helped revolutionize. Even when she lastly places down her racquet, Williams gained’t actually depart us. She might not be capable to dually serve the gods of tennis and motherhood, however generations of younger athletes will proceed to select up racquets of their very own as a result of she impressed them to take action. A legacy like that’s greater than numbers.