Tennis will move on from Serena Williams. It has to. Might not be easy, mind you, given what a transcendent figure she was, on the court and off. But that is what sports do, even when superstars leave. They all leave, of course, and sports always move on.
The matches will be played, new stars will emerge, fans will continue to watch. And Williams will be missed, of course. By spectators. By executives from the tours, tournaments and television. By other athletes.
And as the 2023 Australian Open gets started Monday (Sunday night eastern time), the first Grand Slam tournament to be held since she walked away with a farewell at the U.S. Open in September, shortly before her 41st birthday – the owner of 23 major singles championships said she preferred the term “evolving” to “retiring” – tennis will get a real taste of what a post-Serena world looks like on a big stage.
That is the case even if her impact won’t fade away, as U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster put it: “She leaves an indelible legacy of grace and grit that will inspire athletes, female and male, for many generations to come.”
There surely will be those who keep an eye on tangible data during the two weeks at Melbourne Park and as this season, and future seasons, go along. Numbers such as attendance figures and TV ratings will be parsed in an effort to gauge what effect there is from the departure of someone who earned status as a just-one-name-necessary celebrity.
In a way, that is all a bit beside the point, however.
“Her legacy is really wide, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport,” said Naomi Osaka, a 25-year-old from Japan who has won four Grand Slam titles but hasn’t played a full match since August and will sit out the Australian Open. “I honestly think that she’s, like, the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to make [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport.”
In recent decades, folks might have worried about what would happen when Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova stopped playing. Or when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors moved on. Or Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Or Steffi Graf. And so on.
“It’s always a loss when you have great players leave. But I’ve been through six or seven generations of this,” said Billie Jean King, a two-time inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame who won 12 Grand Slam trophies in singles and another 27 in women’s or mixed doubles.
“I mean, I remember when Sampras left and when Martina and Chris left. I was like, ‘Oh, no! What’s going to happen?’ Well, Sampras was there, and guess what? There’s Roger Federer. There’s Nadal. … It’s the same thing with the women. We’ve got Iga [Swiatek] now, who’s taken over,” King said. “Every generation gets better, and the depth of women’s tennis is better than it’s ever been, and Serena is somewhat responsible for that, because every generation builds on the last generation.”
Shortly after Williams lost to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round at Flushing Meadows, another titan of tennis, 20-time major champ Federer, announced his retirement. Federer hadn’t played an official match in more than a full year because of a series of knee operations.
For Williams, there were moments when she stepped away from competing for stretches, either because of health issues or simply because she wanted to spend time on other interests, which she thought contributed to her longevity.
WTA CEO and chairman Steve Simon thinks those gaps left room for some new faces to emerge in women’s tennis, such as current No. 1 Swiatek and American teenager Coco Gauff.
“Serena has played what I would call a limited schedule over the last several years, anyway. So clearly, we have a new set of stars that are coming in and certainly establishing themselves and doing well,” Simon said. “But I see us continuing to celebrate Serena – and I hope she comes back and plays another five or 10 years.”
Good luck with that.
But those she brought to tennis, whether players or fans, should last long beyond that time frame.
“Serena got a lot of people interested in our sport. And now it’s up to the next generation to do that,” King said. “People always – the media – goes into this every time: ‘Oh, they’re leaving! Oh, what’s going to happen?’ Somebody always comes up to the top. The cream rises to the top.”