I wasn’t a big sports fan growing up. If someone were to ask me to name five athletes as a kid, my response would have probably been, “Uhhh, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods.” Today, I’d include some basketball players like LeBron James or Stephen Curry but Williams would still be at the top of that list. Williams has forever stayed in my rotation not just as one of the few sports stars I can name off the top of my head, but also as one of my favorite athletes, and favorite cultural figures – period. In her illustrious career, Serena Williams transcended tennis. And now, as Williams prepares to transition away from playing tennis — she made the retirement announcement official in Vogue this week — I can’t help but look back on the impact she’s had on me, her sport, and the culture.
Williams is undoubtedly iconic, from all the records she’s broken (including her own) to her becoming the face of tennis, a sport that was once dominated by white men. Her dominance was always so inspiring to me — she didn’t just take up space in a world full of country clubs and rich white elites, she owned tennis. Serena Williams is tennis.
I remember watching TV as a kid, and when all the children’s programming, like Arthur, WordGirl, and Cyberchase, would turn into afternoon talk shows, like The Tavis Smiley Show and Maury, I would scroll through the channels looking for something to hold my attention. I would land on ESPN and there she’d be, leaping side to side, muscles taut and ponytail swaying. The enigmatic presence of Serena Williams became so familiar to me; her unmistakable signature grunts, the thwack of the tennis ball as it connected with the racket. She was an undeniable force on the court.
Serena Williams’ dominance was always so inspiring to me — she didn’t just take up space in a world full of country clubs and rich white elites, she owned tennis. Serena Williams is tennis.
I’ve always loved the fact that her prowess was undeniable, no matter how much smack commentators or haters would talk, she was accepting trophies on trophies with sweat still glistening on her skin as proof of her effort. She was a shining example of how if you worked hard and if you kept at something, you could be successful. She’s always been someone who shows that you can succeed in a field even if it’s predominantly littered with faces that don’t look like you, and that you can become an icon on a court that wasn’t built for you. Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff are living examples of Williams’ legacy, and they would be the first to tell you that they wouldn’t have stepped foot on a professional tennis court if it wasn’t for Williams (and her sister Venus) paving the way.
Williams is an icon in color. I grew up watching her, not just seeing her in black-and-white textbooks. From killing it on the court to her multi-million dollar brand deals and business ventures to slaying in black and white in Beyoncé’s music video for “Sorry,” Williams’ status as an influential figure and an icon has long been solidified. In her essay in Vogue, Williams seems to understand her cultural impact, but writes that doesn’t like to think about her legacy — even though she does a pretty good job of summing it up. “I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful,” she writes. “I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier. Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis. I admire Billie Jean because she transcended her sport. I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”
Williams also expresses her frustration with the fact that she has to retire in order to focus on expanding her family (she also doesn’t love the word “retirement”), a choice male athletes don’t have to make. The other four athletes I could name off the top of my head were men — men who are never expected to step away from their respective sports for the sake of their family. Some fans are convinced that LeBron will never retire while it’s just expected that when a female athlete retires to start a family.
Williams never wanted to meet that expectation. She won the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. When it comes to starting a family, female athletes are expected to go quietly into the night, eager to embrace motherhood and be happy to leave their beloved sport behind. Williams subverts that narrative, and in Vogue, she makes it clear that not only is she sad to leave tennis, she is not excited about or looking forward to retiring.
“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,” Williams writes. But Williams is the wife in this scenario, and when faced with having to balance motherhood and a profession as demanding as a professional athlete, something has to give. It’s an issue that her male counterparts don’t have to deal with, and it’s unfair. It’s bittersweet and beautiful that she was able to exist as an example of mothers being able to compete at a high level, and that mothers do not have to give up everything to have a family. “The fact is that nothing is a sacrifice for me when it comes to Olympia. It all just makes sense. I want to teach her how to tie her shoes, how to read, where babies come from, and about God. Just like my mom taught me,” Williams writes. Motherhood can be a joy and blessing, but there’s also nuance to the choices women who become mothers make. I love that Williams is sharing about how complex and emotional those choices can be.
Thanks to Williams, it’s easier to believe that Black women can be beautiful in every form — in our careers, in motherhood, in our selves — in a society that constantly tells us we can’t.
Williams has yet to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles, and she seems resigned to the fact that she may never beat it. Some would say that not achieving this accolade leaves Williams without her perfect legacy. Some will say that her losing her first match since announcing her retirement at the Canadian Open yesterday makes her any less perfect. But let’s not forget that she did win 23 grand slam titles and became one of the most celebrated athletes in history, and depending on who you ask, the greatest athlete of all time. Williams is someone who saw perfection as the greatest goal in her life, so it’s quite the feat for her to be able to make the active choice to step back, to be content with the titles she’s earned, and to accept that perfection is not always necessary or a real standard. That’s why I’m not sad about this announcement. I’m happy for Williams. Yes, she is stepping away from the sport that brought her into the global spotlight and enriched her life, but she’s also just choosing to live, to win on a different court, and I love that for her. People always argue about whether a mother or a woman can have it all, whether they can juggle every ball. It’s refreshing to watch a woman like Williams stop and know that she doesn’t have to feel the need to juggle every ball.
As the tributes and gratitude from fans roll in, I’d like to thank Williams for being a trailblazer, for breaking the glass ceiling multiple times, and for being someone for Black girls like me to look up to. Thanks to Williams, it’s easier to believe that Black women can be beautiful in every form — in our careers, in motherhood, in our selves — in a society that constantly tells us we can’t. In a society that masculinizes Black women, sets gender-normative and unrealistic beauty standards, and tells us that we are not beautiful, I’d like to thank Williams for the way that she chose to respond to those comments when they were directed at her. She did so in a way that reminded me when I was younger that I could be beautiful in any way, and that strength was not just for men.
Thanks to Williams, I know that the perfection you’re striving for can evolve and that’s okay. Williams gave us so much, and now I wish her the best with her business ventures and her family, and I hope she leaves tennis knowing that all her efforts were enough. She is as perfect as she needs to be.
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