Tennis legend Serena Williams says she plans to retire sometime after US Open

A retrospective look back at the historic and legendary career of Serena Williams, a pioneer and trailblazer in the game of tennis, and in the sporting world, narrated by Sportsnet's Caroline Cameron.

Serena Williams, one of the most transcendent and dominant competitors in the history of tennis, is retiring from the sport sometime after playing in the US Open one last time, she announced in a personal essay published by Vogue on Tuesday.

“I have never liked the word retirement,” Williams wrote. “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.”

Williams did not give an exact date for when she would retire, but when sharing the as-told-to Vogue cover story on her personal Instagram, she hinted that the US Open — which begins later this month — could be her final tournament. “The countdown has begun,” she said, adding, “I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”

Among the things she says she is moving towards is working more closely with Serena Ventures, her venture capital firm, and growing her family.

Williams recounted a story about her five-year-old daughter, Olympia, using an interactive educational app while they were driving to get her a new passport. The app asked Olympia what she wanted to be when she grows up, to which she answered she wanted to be a big sister.

“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” Williams wrote. “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 labour 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.”

She went on to say that she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, planned to have another child.

“In the last year, Alexis and I have been trying to have another child, and we recently got some information from my doctor that put my mind at ease and made me feel that whenever we’re ready, we can add to our family. I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete,” Williams wrote. “I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”

News of her plans to retire come the morning after her first singles win in 430 days, as she defeated Spain’s Nuria Párrizas Díaz at the National Bank Open in Toronto on Monday. After the match, Williams hinted that the twilight of her storied career may be coming to an end, saying that “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Still, seeing the end has not made reaching it any easier.

Williams said she was reluctant to admit that she had to move on from playing, and had hardly talked about it — even with her husband — because “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.”

A 23-time Grand Slam champion, Williams has been an elemental figure in tennis since winning her first US Open in 1999 and drew parallels — and distinctions — between her pending departure from the game and how other storied players walked away.

She wrote about Ashleigh Barty, the former world No. 1 who left the sport in March at the top of her game, and felt ready to move on. She wrote about Caroline Wozniacki, who was the No. 1 ranked singles player in the world for 71 weeks, and felt a sense of relief when she retired in 2020. And she wrote about how she hasn’t had those same experiences.

“Praise to these people, but I’m going to be honest. There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams wrote. “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.” 

Looking back on her career, Williams reflected on the remarkable trajectory of her life, a story that started in Compton, California “with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis” and saw her become arguably the greatest winner in any sport, period.

The moments that stood out, as she stands at the edge of what comes next, were the wins, the thrill of battle, the joy of entertaining on some of the most historic stages in Tennis, “waiting in the 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.”

To reach her heights took a singular drive, something that she refined and wielded throughout her career. Often, it came from a place of defiance.

“To me that’s kind of the essence of being Serena: expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong,” Williams wrote. “There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good. My sister Venus once said that when someone out there says you can’t do something, it is because they can’t do it. But I did do it. And so can you.”

The American has won more Grand Slam singles titles in the professional era than any other woman or man. Only one player, Margaret Court, collected more, 24, although she won a portion of hers in the amateur era.

Williams, whose last Grand Slam tournament victory came while she was pregnant during the Australian Open in 2017, was eliminated from Wimbledon in June in the first round, falling in the first round to Harmony Tan in three sets.

“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth,” Williams wrote. “I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.”

The National Bank Open is just the second tournament of the season for Williams after making her return to competition at Wimbledon just over a month ago.

Should she retire shortly after the tournament in New York, her final matches in Canada will come this week. Williams is slated to play on Wednesday, an event that can be seen on Sportsnet.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don’t know if I will be ready to win New York, Williams wrote. “But I’m going to try. And the lead-up tournaments will be fun. I know there’s a fan fantasy that I might have tied Margaret that day in London, then maybe beat her record in New York, and then at the trophy ceremony say, ‘See ya!’ I get that. It’s a good fantasy. But I’m not looking for some ceremonial, final on-court moment. I’m terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst. But please know that I am more grateful for you than I can ever express in words. You have carried me to so many wins and so many trophies. I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis. And I’m going to miss you.” 

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