Serena Williams’ retirement is a crushing loss for tennis

We all knew this sad day was coming, but it still hurts like a 120-miles-per-hour serve to the stomach: Serena Williams, the greatest American tennis player ever, is retiring.

The 40-year-old tennis superstar announced she’s “evolving away” from the sport on Tuesday in an essay for Vogue. Williams added that this year’s US Open, beginning Aug. 29, will be her final tournament. Fittingly, she’ll bow out on the very same stage where she won her first Grand Slam in 1999 at just 17 years old.

It’s the biggest departure from US tennis since Andy Roddick hung up his racket in 2012 — but much more massive than that.

Roddick only won one slam, after all. Williams has won an otherworldly 23. That’s more than fellow greats Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who’s holding steady at 22.

Williams, without a doubt, is a once-in-generation athlete on the same godlike level as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James or Tom Brady. The sports world will be a lot less ferocious or fascinating without her.

No more brutal beatdowns of inferior opponents; no more headline-grabbing tutus and catsuits; no more controversies obsessed over by the entire planet.

Williams won her first Grand Slam, the 1999 US Open, at just 17 years old.
Getty Images

I’ll especially miss witnessing Williams’ extraordinary ability to rouse a crowd into absolute pandemonium. All the best tennis players know how to get a stadium on their side to help them win, but Williams — roaring “Come on!” at the court so loudly she could almost shake it — did it like a fired-up politician at a rally.

The fans’ late-night shouts at Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis court in the world, were deafening. My doctor is mad at Williams for irreparably damaging my hearing.

What set her apart for more than 20 years, much to the chagrin of some, is that Williams had little concern for the old gentility of women’s tennis. She brought pure, unfiltered emotion to every match, which made her scintillating to watch. Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport and Billie Jean King were tremendous players, but Williams was uniquely forthright and punishing. A real star, Williams made a country club sport sizzle like a boxing ring.

Serena Williams and sister Venus Williams played each other at grand slams 16 times.
Serena Williams and sister Venus Williams played each other at Grand Slams 16 times.
NY Daily News via Getty Images

And her run is not over just yet.

The Open won’t be a mere retirement party with coffee cake and balloons. Williams will be desperate to tie Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam wins — the most of any woman or man in history. She’ll crave going out on top. She sailed through her first round at the National Bank Open in Toronto Monday in two sets, and is beginning to find her form. Only a fool would count her out.

Time comes for everyone though, and Williams has struggled in her previous two Slam appearances — the 2021 and 2022 Wimbledon — where she bowed out in the first round both times. Calling it quits now makes sense. She has a fashion line, book deals, film projects and a venture capital firm to keep her busy. And well-paid. And culturally relevant.

Beyond stats, Williams has more to be proud of. She broke ground for black athletes and women. Besides being the one of the highest paid women in sports, she also won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter Alexis Olympia, whom she shares with husband and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, her last grand slam victory, while pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia.
Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, her last Grand Slam victory, while pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia.

But Williams — like her male counterparts Novak Djokovic or John McEnroe — has also had her share of on-court controversies. She was penalized in 2009 for threatening a line judge, and she all but forfeited the 2018 US Open final against Naomi Osaka with penalty-causing outbursts that led to boos and tears.

Hers is a complex legacy, but whose isn’t? 

Williams’ storied run has been staggering to watch. Twenty-three Grand Slams, 319 weeks as World No. 1, four Olympic gold medals. She helped sustain a voracious American appetite for tennis and completely changed the world of sports with a racket and an indomitable spirit.

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