It’s rare that a single human being accomplishes as much as Serena Williams has in a lifetime, let alone in the 27 years she’s brandished a tennis racket. But her legacy isn’t yet cemented, at least as far as it extends outside the tennis arena: She announced her retirement—or, in her words, her “evolution” away—from tennis in a Vogue essay and photo spread published online on Tuesday.
In Williams’ essay, as told to Rob Haskell, the renowned athlete and mother to 4-year-old Olympia explained her painstaking decision to step away from her storied tennis career after she plays in the 2022 U.S. Open at the end of the month. After winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and regularly ranking as No. 1 in the sport, Williams will focus, instead, on growing her family with her husband, Alexis Ohanian (the co-founder of Reddit, who is now—like Williams herself—very, very rich).
In the impassioned piece, Williams wrote that she knows, no matter how much it hurts, she can no longer succeed at parenting while also competing as an elite athlete—a problem male athletes do not face (or at least rarely publicly reckon with).
“Believe me, 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,” she said. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
What Williams has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. She played with the goal of winning the U.S. Open and then “just kept winning.” She surpassed tennis greats like Martina Hingis and Monica Seles and Chris Evert–Martina Navratilova. But becoming a mother complicated her straightforward winning streak: Williams was two months pregnant when she won the Australian Open in 2017. She gave birth to her daughter by C-section, suffered a second pulmonary embolism, and showed up at a Grand Slam final nine months later. She played while breastfeeding and through postpartum depression, she wrote.
Williams said her new focus, beyond her family, will be her venture capital firm Serena Ventures, which she said has raised $111 million in funding. She’s already funded 16 “unicorns” (companies with billion-dollar valuations), including MasterClass, for which she wrote “one of the very first checks.” (It’s here we must note that pivoting to an industry premised on exponentially multiplying the wealth of the already-rich is not exactly a salve for inequality—nor is citing Sheryl Sandberg, the embodiment of cringe, “lean in” feminism, as one of your greatest mentors.)
But it’s not often that we have the opportunity to embrace women athletes like Williams as athletic phenoms and cultural icons in equal measure—especially those who don’t shy away from the messiness of celebrity. She’s been unfairly critiqued as “boorish,” “insincere,” and prone to “meltdowns,” for which she was once fined $17,000. But in the longstanding drudgery for gender equality in sports, a moment like this—in which Williams gets to leave the sport on her own terms—is one to savor.
Williams is savoring it, too, writing in her Vogue essay: “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at this magazine when it comes out, knowing that this is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis.”