What Serena Williams’ Retirement Taught Me

I grew up being empowered by her game on the tennis court. But reflecting on her retirement has reminded me of the limitlessness of Black women.
Serena Williams waves at the crowd during the women's singles third round match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, on Sept. 9.
Serena Williams waves at the crowd during the women's singles third round match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, on Sept. 9.
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

There’s a power you’re able to harness while witnessing Serena Williams. At play. During interviews. Just being. On and off the court, she transfers her power to her audience in an inexplicable way. The absolute control she has fuels you. This is especially true if you’re a woman. Even more so if you’re a Black woman.

I was 3 when Williams started playing tennis professionally. By the time I was in kindergarten, she and her sister Venus had made their way to the Black history lessons at my nontraditional school that prioritized lessons of the diaspora. I put the Williams sisters on the same pedestal I placed astronaut Mae Jemison and entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. Generally, I knew that not only tennis, but the world was a better place because of barriers the Williams sisters broke down.

When I became an athlete at 8 and started to tap into my competitiveness, I paid more attention to sports overall. I loved watching women play. The rawness and grit — that adults often dissuaded me from showing on the soccer field or basketball court — put a fire in me. And though I didn’t play tennis, Serena had a unique grasp on how I saw myself as an athlete. At the same time, I was being taught to mince words and be more “ladylike,” Serena held nothing back. Every swing, every pivot, every grunt showed me a different type of femininity — and it fueled me to lean into a more authentic me.

I came into my adulthood watching Serena reign. The world defined her by her game, but she wouldn’t allow it. Of course, her historic 23-time Grand Slams record speaks for itself, but her career truly transcended sports. Even knowing this, I found myself very emotional when she announced that she’d be retiring, or in her words “evolving,” to focus on expanding her family.

I don’t have a personal tie to tennis as a sport. It can be too quiet and too white for me, a loud Black girl from Dayton, Ohio. But seeing a young girl from Compton fiercely disrupt that alongside her sister energized me in a way I didn’t truly understand until watching her play one of the last games she’d ever presumably play in person.

Serena became the greatest of all time even before the world deemed her that. And she knew it. She always knew she would. With every bogus call, every ounce of misogynoir thrown at her and every callous criticism meant to tear her down, she always knew she was the shit.

When haters tried to convince her that she wasn’t feminine or pretty enough, her beauty radiated on the cover of magazines. When doctors and nurses failed her during her pregnancy, she advocated for herself and told her story of medical racism. And when the tennis community counted her out time and time again, she would come back and prove that she was nothing to play with, opening doors for the likes of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff. She even won the Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.

In her farewell letter published in Vogue, Serena broke down the “essence” of who she is and what drove her throughout her career: “expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong. 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. But I did do it. And so can you.”

At a time when folks conflate their occupation with their identity, I’ve begun to truly appreciate Serena’s retirement. Her journey represents so much more than a great sports legacy. It represents what happens when Black women are empowered to thoroughly know and understand their worth and lean into the endless possibilities that belong to them, even when the world says otherwise.

It’s an inspiration to keep going until you want to do something else. It’s also a reminder that what we do for work, or even for other people, doesn’t define us. And it’s confirmation that regardless of where we are in our journey, we’re powerful as hell.

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