Serena Williams’ most formidable foe is retirement. No matter how skillful they are, great athletes get to this point in time when they discover that their athletic longevity has collided with their fallibility. There is no win in retiring other than embracing it graciously — and there is no better way to do so than to bow out on the cover of a famous magazine, in blue Balenciaga and dripping Bulgari.
She can’t move as freely as she used to. The demands on her muscles are too much for her, and nothing returns as quickly as before. Despite reaching several finals, she has not won a Grand Slam championship since 2017. Olympia, her 4-year-old daughter, is almost the age she was when she first took up a tennis racket and began smiting competitors with it.
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They say that an athlete dies twice: when they retire and when they take their final breath. Williams is just 40 years old, yet she was the most dynamically active, deep-breathing athlete in tennis for decades, capable of turning an entire game with her bursts of power and roaring exhalations. She was the most dissatisfied beast you’d ever seen on a tennis court, and not even 23 Grand Slam wins could quench her need for trophy-lifting. And now she’s meant to be happy. With what? What other profession requires a person to give up their life’s work by the age of 40? As her retirement from singles tennis approached, Martina Navratilova exclaimed, “A doctor is just getting started.”
Williams stated that she had been hesitant to confess to herself or anybody else that she needed to retire from tennis. She went on to say that it was a taboo subject in her family and that she seldom discussed it even with her spouse. Her therapist is the only one she has spoken with about it.
Retirement is a difficult transition for anybody, riddled with self-doubt and sadness. However, athletic retirement is a complicated experience: Williams has dealt with heightened sensory awareness for years, her nervous system cellularly electrified by screaming crowds beneath the lights, her body a furnace-burn of adrenaline and cortisol when challenged. In retirement, there will be a noticeable reduction in everyday intensity.
Most importantly, there’ll be a dearth of competition. Williams has faced more opponents, both visible and invisible, than any of her competitors. Perhaps the best attribute she possessed was her own temperament, a riveting and at times terrifying battle of wills as she faced up against White tennis crowds and censorious authorities. She has always defied anybody else’s concept of what a champion should be, what a Black champion ought to be, what a female champion should be — thus her category-defying business achievements in tech and on the pages of Vogue. It was one thing to be the small child from the public court in Compton, Calif., who broke down economic and racial boundaries in the sport of elites, but it was quite another to be the pregnant champion whose feminine goal was continually threatened by the inevitable narrowing of eyes and the deadening, devaluing assumptions of others about how she was expected to behave.