In a letter published Tuesday in Vogue, legend Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slams, announced her upcoming retirement after a 25-year career. A page is turning for the world of tennis with the departure of this icon who will have inspired the new generations by his domination on the courts and his feminist and anti-racist positions.
“The countdown is on.” It is with these words, mysterious but unambiguous, that Serena Williams, legend of world tennis, announced on Tuesday August 9 her upcoming retirement at the age of 41.
Saying she wants to “savor the next few weeks”, she explains her decision: “I want to focus on my role as a mother, my goals on a spiritual level, to discover a new but equally exciting Serena.”
The date of her retirement is never clearly announced in the long introspective letter from Serena Williams published in Vogue, but all the signs point to a last stand at the US Open, a last Major of the season at home which is also the site of her first Grand Slam victory in 1999. She has since added 22 more to her tally, just one step short of Margaret Court’s record.
“Unfortunately, I was not ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don’t know if I will be ready to win in New York. But I will try,” she said. “I know there’s a fan fantasy that I could have equaled Margaret ‘this year at Wimbledon’ and then maybe beat her record in New York and then at the trophy ceremony say ‘To more !’ “I get it, it’s a nice dream! But I’m not looking for a ceremony or a last moment on the pitch. I suck at goodbyes, the worst in the world.”
Richard, Venus and Serena, the Williams saga
At the origins of the Williams saga, there is the father, Richard. Years before the birth of his daughters Venus and Serena, he discovers the sum that a winner of Roland-Garros wins: 40,000 dollars. A crazy amount for a low-income African-American living in the violence-ridden neighborhood of Compton, near Los Angeles. He decides that his children will be tennis champions.
Venus Williams was born in 1980, Serena Williams the following year. From the age of four, they endure draconian training, improvised by their father, who has never held a racket in his life. The film “The Williams Method”, released in France on 1is December 2021, looks back on this atypical start to his career.
Initially less gifted than her sister, Serena Williams meticulously observes the matches of her eldest, working hard to avoid repeating the same mistakes. She joined the professional circuit in 1997, where she stands out because of her impressive physique. She reached the top after her impressive victory at the US Open in 1999 at only 17 years old, while she also won the doubles tournament with her sister. The following year, they did it again by winning gold at the Sydney Olympics. In total, they will win 14 Grand Slam doubles titles together, the best pair in history, men and women combined.
In 2002, Serena Williams won Roland-Garros, the US Open and Wimbledon, each time beating her sister in the final. Then, in 2003, by winning the Australian Open, still facing her sister, she became the ninth woman in history to conquer the four Grand Slam tournaments. This is the beginning of a long domination in women’s tennis. Serena Williams won 73 titles including 23 Grand Slams in singles.
She is thus the fifth player in history to win the four Grand Slam tournaments in singles and doubles, and the first to win the four Grand Slam tournaments and Olympic gold in singles and doubles career.
Its advantages ? His serve, sometimes hit at over 200 km/h, and his forehand. His confidence too. Serena Williams believes that when she plays her best tennis, no one can beat her. An exploit shows the strength of her mind: she won three Grand Slam tournaments by having saved a match point in the final.
The eternal rebound
The career of Serena Williams, however, has nothing of a long calm river. In 2001, at the American tournament in Indian Wells, when she had to face her sister in the semi-finals, the latter withdrew, triggering the anger of the public, who accused the father of the two players of manipulation for the benefit of the youngest. Serena Williams is booed in the final. The Williams clan accuses the public of racism and boycotts the tournament until 2015.
In 2003-2004, she was absent for eight months after knee surgery. Even if she was then only 21 years old, we doubt that she would play tennis again, Serena Williams seeming monopolized by other centers of interest, fashion or television. In 2010, she slashed her feet walking on broken glass, then in March 2011, a pulmonary embolism nearly cost her her life.
Her various setbacks – and especially the tragedy that struck her family in September 2003 when her half-sister Yetunde was shot and killed in Los Angeles – finally made her more human in the eyes of the public, some of whom were tired of seeing her win. A few months before the tragedy, she is whistled at Roland-Garros, she who has always said her love for Paris, where she has an apartment. Her detractors do not imagine that ten years later, trained by the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, she would speak in the language of Molière on the center court.
A committed sportswoman
In parallel with her sports career, she became a businesswoman and did not hesitate to take a stand to defend the rights of women and those of the black community. In 2014, she launched the Serena Ventures investment fund, whose mission is to “give opportunities to entrepreneurs in many sectors”. In 2017, she published a column calling for the fight against wage inequalities, whether between men and women, or between whites and blacks.
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She is also committed alongside the Black Lives Matter movement. She will also appear at Roland-Garros in March 2018 in a full black jumpsuit with red facing, inspired by the film “Black Panther” featuring the eponymous Marvel hero. An outfit that made headlines, the then president of the French Tennis Federation (FFT), Bernard Giudicelli, judging it inappropriate. The equipment supplier Nike then published a photo of the player with the following caption: “You can take away her costume from a superheroine, but you cannot take away her superpowers.”
She will also have contributed to normalizing motherhood in the sports career of women. She won her last Grand Slam tournament at the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant. And while some might have seen the birth of her first child, after a complicated pregnancy and childbirth, as a sign of early retirement, the youngest of the Williams returns. Using her daughter Olympia as additional motivation, she returned to the courts and regained her level, playing four new Grand Slam finals.
“At the level of Michael Jordan”
“She has to do what she wants. She deserves it, after all she has accomplished,” reacted to the announcement of the player’s retirement, John McEnroe, the former American champion, who nevertheless had very harsh words in the past towards Serena Williams. “She no longer needs to play tennis. She is at the level of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tom Brady. She is one of the greatest sportswomen in history, all sports combined, male or female,” said he added.
A sign of its impact on sport, American tennis is already looking for “the new Serena Williams”. Among the two contenders for this honorary crown, “Coco” Gauff, world number 11 at 18, and Emma Raducanu world number 10 and defending champion at the US Open at 19.
“She has clearly revolutionized the game. To dominate to this extent… There is no one else to have dominated to this extent in women’s tennis. (…) Her career is incredible. She has achieved so much. (…) This longevity is something that many players, me in particular, hope to achieve,” said the latter.
“The imprint she leaves with her career is something that no other player can possibly hope to achieve. It is something that can inspire many generations to come. (…) I grew up watching her play, she is the reason why I play tennis”, testifies for her part Cori Gauff. “I’m a bit sad because I always wanted to play against her.”
Perhaps she will have the opportunity at the US Open for a passing of the torch.