Sports

Serena Williams’ Remarkable Last Stand

She won all those titles by never counting herself out, by believing that the impossible was possible. I want to believe it still is.

Serena crouches and peers over the net
Serena during her practice session before the start of the U.S. Open, at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Thursday in New York City. Elsa/Getty Images

This summer, it seemed like the end had already come for Serena Williams’ career.

When the entry list for Wimbledon came out in early June, Williams’ name was not on it. She hadn’t played in nearly a full season, since Wimbledon the year before, and her name was set to fall off the WTA rankings completely. Williams hadn’t been a full-time presence on the tour in years, and it felt like it was time to start saying goodbye.

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But then, with little warning, Williams was back. She dusted off her racquet and played a couple grass court tournaments. “I always try to stay semi-fit, because you never know when you’re going to enter Wimbledon,” she mused, as if we all could relate.

This was a bonus time for Williams, a treat for her fans who had reason to think they’d already seen the last of her on court. But because of the all-time high standards Williams is held to by the public and by herself, choosing to come back at age 40 also meant putting a lot back on the line, at an age when few players have ever dared to put themselves back in the arena.

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Williams has worked to maintain control of her story in what has become the final chapter of her playing career. And when she decided she was ready to make her exit from the sport official, Williams chose to serve first.

In a first-person essay—that was, in typical recent Serena fashion, a cover story for Vogue—Williams announced and outlined her inevitable retirement, effective after this year’s U.S. Open, which begins Monday. Williams, authoring the story, made clear that she wanted the world to know why she was going to be hanging up her racquet: She wants to be able to have a second child. “If I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter,” Williams wrote.

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As she has with her serves for decades, Williams delivered a powerful message with a sharp angle. Her framing limited the options for how the public and sporting commentariat could respond, and conversations duly focused on her desire to grow her family.

But then came the tough part: She had to take court again. Abruptly, the story wasn’t being told just by Williams, but also by the scoreboard.

In her two matches since her announcement in Vogue, Williams suffered lopsided defeats, going down 6–2, 6–4 to Belinda Bencic in Toronto and then 6–4, 6–0 to Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati, only the 11th time Williams had lost a set 6–0 in the thousands of sets she’s played.

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The loss to Raducanu was rough enough that I began to wonder in the hours that followed if Williams might decide against playing the U.S. Open at all. But even with nothing left to prove, and even with all odds stacked against her, Williams has never been one to quit. It can’t be easy for her to be playing when she knows she is so far off her previous best, and it’s not always easy to watch, either. The visible parts of her game don’t show what they once did—but the inner drive to be the best is still in there, burning bright through a coat of rust.

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Watching those matches, it became clear what Williams had left out in her version of her story: She’s just not close to being the player she once was. Williams is 40 years old. She has gotten older and slower and isn’t anywhere near being in the best shape of her life. Those stark realities weren’t things Williams chose to mention in Vogue, but they are unavoidable while watching her on court at this stage of her career, struggling to move and defend with the dynamism and explosivity that had allowed her offense to be so potent. She couldn’t counterpunch whatsoever; once she got behind in a rally, she lost it nearly every time.

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All of this serves as a reminder of what we too often take for granted about a player of Williams’ caliber. By merely stepping onto the court alone, Williams cedes the sort of control she had when telling her story in Vogue. It’s been that way for each match of her 27-year professional career. She puts herself out there, across the net from a hungry opponent who has also trained all her life to be the best tennis player she can be. Even for a champion like Serena Williams, it’s a vulnerable experience.

The only shot a tennis player has full control of during a match is the serve, and Williams has made herself the greatest professional tennis player of all time by having the best serve in the history of women’s tennis. But once your serve comes back, or when the opponent is serving, no shot is played entirely on your own terms. Playing a singles tennis match is an incredibly exposed experience: You are out there by yourself, with your name on the scoreboard, winning or losing by yourself. There’s no teammate to substitute for you if you’re having a bad day or feel the twinge of an injury, and no teammate or coach to put an arm around your shoulder and offer a calming word of inspiration to reset your mind when negative thoughts begin to spiral if things aren’t going well. Being out there in the arena, especially when compromised by age or injury, is a profound risk to one’s pride.

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Williams could have cleanly walked away from the sport without walking back into it. It would have been so easy to come to Flushing Meadows and get a glowing retirement ceremony on Arthur Ashe Stadium that would have let her soak in being feted as the greatest champion that tennis ever saw, without putting herself back into the octagon-shaped arena for any real battle. But incredibly, the arena is a risk she has chosen to take one more time anyway—under the brightest spotlight at the biggest event in the sport.

She is keeping control where she can though, choosing not to do any interviews or press conferences since her retirement announcement. Williams skipped her press conference after her loss in Toronto, and she skipped her press conference again after losing in Cincinnati. (She is not one of the 11 players who held a pre-tournament presser at the U.S. Open media day on Friday.)

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Not that Williams needs to say anything else; in many ways, the way she swiftly marched off court in Cincinnati was more telling than any answer in a press conference could have been. But these past weeks have been a reminder that Williams won’t entirely control her own narrative when she ends her on-court story as an athlete. And because of the stark single-elimination format of tennis tournaments, the last point Williams plays will almost certainly be one she loses.

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I write all of this not to rain on Williams’ parade, but to reset expectations in a way that I hope can be fairer to Williams than I think she is being to herself. When she was asked at a pre-tournament press conference at Wimbledon what would be a satisfactory result at the tournament, Williams smiled. “C’mon now, you guys know the answer to that,” she said, reaffirming a trophy-or-bust mantra that had defined her ambition throughout her career. But when Williams’ Wimbledon result was, by those standards, a bust—a first-round loss to 115th-ranked Harmony Tan—it again forced an acknowledgement of her new limitations. So as we look at Williams, the 40-year-old athlete who is playing her final tournament, we have to think beyond her own descriptions of herself. Even if she can’t bring herself to lower her standards, Williams’ fans should be doing that themselves. After all, the oldest woman ever to win a grand slam singles title was 35 years old. Her name was Serena Williams, yes, but it was five long years ago.

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So a fair hope for Williams on the eve of the U.S. Open, I had thought, would be that she can put up a respectable last match that might offer some flashes of her vintage best. And, happily, Williams has also entered doubles with her sister, Venus, making it likelier that her final moments on court won’t feel so lonely.

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But even with those moderated expectations in mind, when the draw came out on Thursday, pundits—including myself—got swept up in a bit of Serena fever. Williams opens against 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic, a hard-serving Montenegrin who beat Raducanu in Australia, but who more recently has lost five straight matches. Williams’ likely second round match looks potentially difficult on paper, against No. 2 Anett Kontaveit, but Kontaveit has been one of the least potent No. 2s in WTA history, having amassed most of her ranking points at small indoor tournaments and now struggling physically after a rough bout of COVID-19. Tennis insiders can discount Kontaveit and suddenly get excited about Williams’ chances of a dream run to the third round and well beyond, even if maybe winning just a set off of Kovinic is a more realistic hope.

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But as I try to imagine what the end looks like for Williams, I turn back to what she herself wrote about herself in Vogue. “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.”

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Williams won an Open Era record 23 grand slam singles titles by never counting herself out, and by believing the impossible was possible. And even though I logically know that Williams, still trophy-or-bust, can’t have the U.S. Open result she wants, I want to believe she still can.

As a kid watching on TV in the late ’90s, and later from the last row of Arthur Ashe Stadium as they played in the 2001 and 2002 U.S. Open finals, Venus and Serena Williams made me a tennis fan. I can’t imagine Serena getting back to that stage again—but I know she can imagine it. Reality be damned, that sort of unwavering belief is pretty remarkable in and of itself.

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