When I heard that Serena Williams had announced, in an essay for Vogue, her impending retirement, I forgot, for a moment, the long list of her accomplishments. I didn’t think about her records, her unmatched aura of dominance, her transformation from athlete into cultural force—into someone who demanded, by simply being who she was, that people change the way they talk about female athletes, and Black female athletes in particular. Those changes resonated beyond sports. I thought about her toss.
What makes her toss so effective is its precision and its consistency; what makes its precision and consistency possible is her ease. There is tension in the moment—some of her best serving happens under duress—but none in her left hand. She cradles the ball delicately. Her toss does not drift under pressure, nor drop when she’s tight. It takes a lot of training to achieve that kind of consistency, no matter the situation, no matter the choice of serve. It involves a mastery that is not only mechanical but psychological. There are stories about Venus and Serena as children throwing footballs to develop the motion and rotational power of their shoulders. Richard Williams understood how fundamental the serve was, and how his daughters could gain a competitive advantage by mastering it perfectly and early. It is, after all, the only shot you can entirely control, and the Williams ethos has always been about establishing control. Serena Williams’s serve gets a lot of attention, understandably; there is nothing quite like the sight of her profile in a pinpoint stance, arm fully extended, hips ready to snap, legs loaded with violent power. Then comes the contact, and the devastating effects. Williams set the women’s record for most aces at the U.S. Open, when she won her first Grand Slam, in 1999; she also holds the record for second most, which she set when making the final in 2018, and the records for third, fourth, and fifth most. But I’ve been thinking about all those tosses that she must have practiced as a kid, lofting the ball over and over to hit the same mark. How boring it must have been.
It’s no secret that Williams’s parents, and particularly her father, had a vision for how to shape Venus and Serena. Even the most talented athletes confront long odds, but the Williams sisters also confronted the tremendous headwinds of racism and misogyny and poverty, and in the cosseted world of tennis, no less. That they succeeded is a miracle, but not an uncomplicated one. The recent movie about her father, “King Richard,” for which the Williams sisters served as executive producers, offered the Hollywood version of events. One of the striking things about Williams’s retirement essay is that she acknowledges the more difficult, less inspiring reality. Tennis “has always felt like a sacrifice—though it’s one I enjoyed making,” she writes. “I got pushed hard by my parents. Nowadays so many parents say, ‘Let your kids do what they want!’ Well, that’s not what got me where I am. I didn’t rebel as a kid. I worked hard, and I followed the rules.” Then, referring to her daughter, she adds, “I do want to push Olympia—not in tennis, but in whatever captures her interest. But I don’t want to push too hard. I’m still trying to figure out that balance.”
It’s one of the fundamental questions of parenthood—not only how much you should try to control your kids but how much you really can. Williams has said that she did not plan to conceive a child just before the 2017 Australian Open—which she would win, defeating her sister, while about eight weeks pregnant—but that the birth of her daughter, later that year, was a great blessing. She now says that she is leaving tennis in order to try for another child. She is not merely hopeful but assertive about the possibility of becoming pregnant, at age forty, even following the scary complications that she faced during Olympia’s birth; in the new essay, she says, referring to herself and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, “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.”
The tension between accident and agency, acceptance and control, is among the great inner conflicts that have always been apparent in Williams’s complicated self-presentation. It is not the only one that Williams acknowledges in the essay. “There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out,” she writes. “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.” It can be fraught for commentators to address the role of anger in Williams’s play, given the existence of ugly stereotypes about angry Black women. But Williams’s anger, which can feel elemental, even mythic—the anger of a Greek hero—has always been there. It is an anger that she transmutes into joy, when she delivers an ace down break point, pumps her fist, and roars.
The only note that rings false in that passage above is that “so can you” at the end. It feels off, and not just because only Serena Williams can be Serena Williams. Much of the essay is about Williams’s “evolution,” as she puts it, from professional tennis player to dedicated mother, and also to venture capitalist. This year, her investment firm, Serena Ventures, raised a hundred and eleven million dollars for an inaugural fund, and much of its portfolio consists of companies started by women or people of color. For all the girl-bossing, though, the essay reads most powerfully as an acknowledgment of the things she can’t do, and of the pain that comes with that—even as new opportunities do, too. “Believe me,” she writes, “I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. 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. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity. . . . But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.”
She is right, and neither leaning in nor venture capital is going to change that. Having a child—bearing a child—takes time. It places innumerable demands on a body, and on the mind. It is not fair, but it is life, and it is a choice—or should be—for those who want it. (After the Supreme Court’s recent decision, of course, it is less of a choice for many people in this country.) Williams has always seemed to know what she wants; it has always been her great gift, and her gift to us, to pursue it without regard for anything else. Now she has a child, and wants another, and she’s ready to give something else. ♦