Now possessing the wisdom of the past three weeks, one wonders if Serena Williams would choose to do it this way again.
Retiring via the cover of Vogue magazine was eye-catching, but it had the downside of focusing people on Williams’s tennis. And the tennis is long gone.
Being rumbled in the second round of the National Bank Open in Toronto was bad. Getting her doors blown off by the Next Big Thing, Emma Raducanu, in Cincinnati was worse.
These are tournaments Williams used to dominate on a lark, whenever she felt like showing up. Now, right at the end, she’s started to make it look like a job.
If you grew up with her, there is something vaguely horrific about watching Williams lose her mojo in real time.
The Dutch had skulls painted into the corners of a still-life. We have iconic athletes, still out there slugging a year or two after their punches stopped landing. In the 21st century, they broadcast our memento mori on ESPN.
So as victory laps go, this one has become a bit of an embarrassment. But at least it’s nearly over. This week, Williams will have one last chance to make an impression at the U.S. Open. Just a couple of months ago, organizers would have been hoping for a last Williams ride into the deep rounds, à la Jimmy Connors when he was nearing his end. Something to galvanize the sports world and drive ratings through the roof. Imagine a final with Williams, at 40, in prime time on a Saturday night? They’d have to close off the air space over Queens.
Today, they’ll be hoping for one win. Just one little first-round ray of light. Or – your mouth, God’s ear – a few holds of serve. Anything but zeros on the board. Give this exit some dignity.
But though the ending may be less than people had hoped, the end isn’t. Williams was a special athlete for all sorts of reasons. But her unique quality was that she could be super-human and wonderfully human at the same time.
Having been treated to the former for most of a quarter century, we are getting some of the latter at the end. It’s a reminder that while Williams could make professional tennis look easy in a way no one had, it isn’t.
What will you remember about her?
For me, it isn’t the wins. There are too many and they all had the same plot points. The matches against her sister, Venus, were the worst. Two great champions trying not to hurt each other’s feelings without actually throwing the fight.
For me, it’s still the semi-final of the 2003 French Open – Williams vs. Justine Henin. Williams was already great at this point, but she wasn’t yet (cue swelling soundtrack) Serena Williams. She was still a kid.
That match turned on a hand gesture. Williams was cruising and on serve. As she was about to take a 5-2 lead in the final set, Henin put her hand up – the international gesture for time out. Williams was already well into her service motion. As a courtesy, she put the ball into the net.
It shouldn’t have mattered that much. It was only her first serve. But Williams asked the umpire for relief. He hadn’t seen Henin raise her hand. He looked over at Henin. Henin stared back at him, all innocence.
The look on Williams’s face was something more than frustration. It was rage. The sort of rage we all feel at life’s injustices, but on a much larger stage.
While the Parisian crowd booed and she seethed and the camera lingered, we were all Serena Williams. Even more so when that rage so discombobulated her that she lost the match. No storybook endings here. This was actual life, where people are jerks and things go right off the rails.
Twenty years later, I’ve forgotten a whole lot more sports than I remember, but that moment is engraved on my memory. It – and she – was so universal, so real. It was sport raised to the level of great art. I was an admirer before it happened, but afterward I was a Williams fan.
You didn’t often see that rage on the faces of athletes at the time, especially women. You see it everywhere now, largely because Williams made it permissible. This wasn’t flying off the handle to work herself into a winning frame of mind (the McEnroe method). This was reacting to an unfair world, sometimes in petulant (and highly relatable) ways. A standout might be her meltdown at the 2018 U.S. Open final – the last major she was considered a lock to win. That would make me wild with frustration, too.
Williams was a great champion and a poor loser. Until she showed up, you’d have said the two things shouldn’t co-exist. But she made it happen through the magic of excellence. A mid-tier player who throws tantrums is sad. An all-timer who does so is masochistic. It’s hard not to respect the extra emotional effort.
Another part of Williams’s magic – she didn’t care if you liked her. Not at all. That was clear.
She was fantastically charismatic and could be flirty with the public, but never in any way that suggested she required two-way communication. If you cheered her, great. If you booed her, she’d show you. Either way worked for Williams.
The key to a great athlete – and I’m not talking here about someone who’s won some things, but someone who has transcended winning – is that they are themselves. That quality is impossible to define, but all of us know it when we see it.
Williams was fully herself, always. Over 25 years, nothing about her – from the mid-match battle cries, to the sulks, to the rivalries, to the sister act – seemed contrived. Even those who didn’t like her were compelled by her. That’s another mark of greatness.
So, would it have been better if she’d quit a couple of years ago, when you could still have made a credible claim that she was going out on top?
No. It’s better like this. It’s the full circle of life, reduced to one sporting era. It may not end up being as legendary as what preceded it, but it will be real.