Trailblazer. GOAT. Grand Slam machine. Game changer. Whatever you choose to call Serena Williams, you must also wrestle with the difficulty of finding words to properly encapsulate everything that she is. Ever since she burst on the scene with her older sister Venus, the athlete has been an anomaly in every sense of the word. From her tenured dominance in a mostly white sport to her fashion-forward tennis outfits and boardroom presence outside the courts, Serena Williams has always marched – or Crip-walked – to her own beat unapologetically. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when it’s time to hang up her racket, the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner is doing it her way. On her own terms.
A lot has happened since Serena Williams burst on the scene at the tender age of 14. After being denied entry to the Bank of the West Classic by the Women’s Tennis Association due to age-restrictions, the precocious teen used a wild-card entry to work around the age requirement and played her first professional match in the Bell Challenge in Quebec later that same year. Although she lost in the first qualifying round, the fire in her belly that made her one of, if not the, greatest athletes of all time was just getting stoked.
Two years later, while ranked No. 304, she defeated not one but two top-10 opponents in Mary Pierce (No. 7) and Monica Seles (No. 4) to reach the semifinal at the Ameritech Cup Chicago. Although Williams ended up losing to Lindsay Davenport (No. 5), she became the lowest-ranked player in the Open Era to defeat two top-10 opponents in one tournament. By 1999, the beaded teenager was ranked No. 4 in the world in only her second full year on the main tour.
Her 1999 U.S. Open title made her the second African American woman to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. The first was Althea Gibson – a whopping 40-plus years prior. With an ingenious balance of power, athleticism, fashion consciousness and femininity, Williams would go on to win 23 single Grand Slams, 14 major women’s doubles titles — all with Venus — and four Olympic gold medals before announcing this week that she is retiring from the sport after the U.S. Open that begins later this month. As told to Vogue, Williams doesn’t like the word “retirement” and instead prefers to look at this time in her life as “evolution.” Choosing to act as a scribe, as she has metaphorically done all her life, the daughter of Richard Williams and Oracene Price penned her own goodbye to tennis in Vogue’s September issue, where she appeared on the cover – angelic in a flowing blue dress, with the train held up by her 5-year old daughter Olympia.
“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,” she penned.
Amongst those things are the desire to grow her family. It’s a situation that male athletes rarely have to ponder. Deciding between continuing her career or making Olympia a big sister is not a choice that Williams wanted to have to make. “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,” she told Vogue‘s Rob Haskell. Interesting that Brady is mentioned, as many sports enthusiasts go back and forth when it comes to crowning one or the other as the “GOAT.” However, there’s a sobering truth to those words. Although she returned to tennis following Olympia’s birth, there was a tough, harrowing road to navigate. Often viewed as a superhero, even Williams was not immune to postnatal complications that kept her bed-ridden for six weeks. The superhuman who won the 2017 Australian Open while two months pregnant was reminded that she was just that – human.
It’s coming to terms with that last part that has been, and will likely continue to be, difficult for the woman whose story began in Compton, California and has transcended international borders for over two decades. While the U.S. Open has been softly hinted at as her swan song, some are reluctant to believe that the woman with the 128.6 mph-serve will be walking away that easily. That’s just it; it has not been easy. “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,” said Williams, adding that the topic remains taboo when speaking with her husband Alexis Ohanian and her parents. Coached by her father her whole life, the 40-year old draws a great deal of sadness when talking about the closing of this chapter. However, she is more than primed for what’s next.
Quiet as it’s kept, Williams’ prowess has eclipsed the lines of the tennis court and traveled into the worlds of fashion and business. The highest earning female athlete of all time, her fortune consists of multiple streams of income. With all eyes on her dominant play, she used her platform to display her eclectic sense of style, daring to push the status quo as her mere presence in the sport has done since the 1990s. That daringness, even under the gaze of racist tennis enthusiasts, made the star $40 million dollars in a deal with Nike back in 2004 following her special line with Puma. Her own personal brand, “Aneres,” was developed in 2004 and is still sold today. She also launched a signature handbag and jewelry collection.
Not bad for a player that prompted French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli to ban her custom catsuit from the 2018 French Open, citing that, “One must respect the game and the place.” The mere suggestion that Williams doesn’t respect the game she sincerely loves and gets tearful about when thinking of leaving is egregious. Not only has her strength, speed and power changed the game; she has served as inspiration to little Black girls that have followed her footsteps into a sport that still has not learned to fully embrace them.
Never one to fit into one box – or two or three, for that matter – Williams’ venture capitalist firm, Serena Ventures, has raised $111 million in outside finances and has made over 55 investments to date. Even more impressive, nearly 80 percent of its portfolio is female and minority-founded companies. Outside of blazing trails in tennis, the Williams sisters became the first African American women to hold any amount of ownership in an NFL franchise when they purchased a small stake in the Miami Dolphins in 2009. Serena Williams also joined blockchain-based fantasy soccer game Sorare as a board advisor in January. Her advisory is largely due to a plan to move into North American markets with a focus on women’s sports. In July of 2020, both Williams and her daughter became part owners of LA-based National Women’s Soccer League team, Angel City. Both William and her sister Venus served as executive producers of last year’s critically-acclaimed film King Richard.
While the film told the story of her “beginning” so to speak, Williams’ story is far from being done; it’s just time to move on to the next chapter. Like Williams, we’ll miss “that girl who played tennis,” but we can’t wait to meet who is to come.
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