Serena Williams, representing the United States at the 2012 Fed Cup. Image credit: Aleksandr Osipov / Wikimedia Commons
Earlier this week, tennis superstar Serena Williams announced in Vogue magazine that she will retire after this year’s U.S. Open. Williams’ primary reason is her desire to have another child. As she points out, biology is the enemy here, not age: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” Williams writes. “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.” It has been a difficult decision for a woman who “first picked up a tennis racket” at age 3 and has devoted herself to excellence in the sport ever since.
You will still see Serena out in public as a businesswoman, thought leader, and public person. Her commitment to excellence is legendary: watching Serena play live, including sitting up close during warmups at the U.S. Open, are some of my most cherished athletic memories. But instead of just writing about her myself, I reached out to Princeton University’s Tera Hunter, an award-winning historian of African American women’s and family history who knows the big picture. Hunter is the author of Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(2017) and To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (1997), both from Harvard University Press.
I know Hunter as a scholar—but I also make sure I have her Twitter feed up during Grand Slam women’s matches: she’s one of the best and most knowledgeable women’s tennis commentators I know. So when this big news hit, I naturally reached out to her.
Claire Potter: Thanks for joining me in this space, Tera. Serena Williams has announced that she will retire after the U.S. Open. As my favorite Twitter tennis expert, tell me: why has she mesmerized us all these years?
Tera Hunter: I was a tennis fan before Venus and Serena showed up, but they really exploded my world when they did. I have attended the U.S. Open consistently and witnessed how it has been transformed by their presence, which I think is symbolic of their overall impact on growing the sport. The U.S. Open is a Grand Slam tournament, but it felt much smaller until they arrived, and year by year, the attendance grew and became far more diverse, in large part because of them.
And yet, it took a long time before the Williams sisters had proven themselves enough for a largely white sport to embrace them and for the crowds to cheer for them even above competitors from other countries.
CP: I agree. So, as you say, before Serena, there was Venus: when I watch them together, I always think of my own sister because they seem so close. And their careers are linked. Serena’s accomplishments have, in many ways, outstripped motherhood and entrepreneurship (via Serena Ventures)—but did Venus pave the way for what her sister has achieved? Could Serena have been the champion she is without Venus paving the way?
TH: I have a soft spot for Venus as an older sister myself. She was the one I rooted for just a little bit more. She was supposed to be the better player and started out that way. But Richard Williams, their father and coach, predicted that Serena would ultimately be the best. Serena had to work harder just to make herself seen when all eyes were on Venus. She sneaked herself into tournaments that Venus had been officially enrolled in. (Serena reminds me of little brother Michael, who had to beg his way into the family group that became the Jackson Five and then became the biggest star.) That is the characteristic drive and determination that made her such a tough opponent throughout her career.
Neither sister would have been as great or achieved as much without the other practicing on the other side of the net, standing next to her, lifting her up, and pouncing on whoever was lucky enough to beat one and then face the other in the next round. Serena was very insightful about her big sister’s impact in the Vogue essay in which she announced her retirement. She studied Venus’s mistakes to make sure she did not repeat them.
They were each other’s biggest rivals and strongest supporters. To be sure, Serena was not gracious about losing to anyone, including big sis. Unfortunately, we really don’t know how much more Venus could have achieved had she not been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, in 2011. It is truly remarkable how much Venus was able to recover and continue to play. In fairness, Serena also surpassed her sister with genius, hard work, and force of will.
CP: In 2001, there was an ugly incident at the Indian Wells tournament: Venus withdrew from her semi-final against Serena with a knee injury, and then Serena went on to beat Kim Clijsters in the final. But when Serena took the court against Clijsters, the crowd booed and catcalled her, goaded on by false accusations that Richard Williams had manipulated the match by persuading Venus to fake an injury.
We haven’t seen such an open display of racism since. But how does the way Serena has been treated and still is treated by white people—even though she is a star—illuminate the world that all Black women navigate?
TH: Racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, classism, etc. are all an unfortunate part of sports, which are a reflection of all that transpires in the rest of society. Some sports are worse than others, however. Tennis is an elite country club game that has been reluctant to open up to plebeians—all of us who are not upper class and white. Ora Washington, Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe broke through—with a lot of resistance. There was a sprinkling of other Black players like Yannick Noah, Chanda Rubin, and Zina Garrison.
CP: I’m glad you mentioned Zina Garrison. She was one of my favorite players, and I remember being shocked to learn in 1990, when she made the final at Wimbledon and was beaten by Martina Navratilova, that despite having turned professional as the top-ranked junior player in 1981, she had played for a decade without even having a clothing contract.
TH: Zina is Exhibit A for how much Serena and Venus changed the sport. Garrison was ranked as high as four in singles but did not achieve the level of fame or fortune as other top white women players on the circuit, all of whom she beat at some point. Sponsors were blunt in saying that she did not have the “right” image and did not sign her for endorsements (Martina also got similar cold treatment because of her sexuality.) Venus and Serena landed major endorsements early—in Venus’s case, it was before she even turned pro.
But Venus and Serena arrived by a different route than their predecessors. They were less beholden to the tennis establishment and far more irreverent. Their father and coach called the shots, and he broke conventions to advocate for the daughters he insisted would be world-ranked as numbers one and two.
Unsurprisingly, the Williams family drew skepticism, suspicion, resentment, and incredulity from the tennis establishment. Who were these people from Los Angeles’s Crenshaw neighborhood, and where did they think they were going? The message was: “We don’t do things like that over here.” Venus and Serena were treated by officials, commentators, and fans alike like interlopers who didn’t deserve to be in the club.
The Indian Wells fans were more blatantly hostile in 2001, but it took years before the tide turned, and the sisters became fan favorites anywhere they appeared. Everything about them was scrutinized and determined to be out of order, on and off the court: their hair, their bodies, their (non-tennis) aspirations, and even their jigs when they celebrated after wins.
Still, they insisted on being unapologetically Black and uniquely themselves. That is the history of Black women in America breaking down barriers in any field in a nutshell.
CP: And as you rightly point out, the Williams sisters have always insisted on making a broader impact. They haven’t been overtly political people, but when historians look back in ten, twenty, thirty years–what are they going to say about how Serena and Venus Willams changed what is possible for women, and for Black women, in America?
TH: They have had to speak truth to power in the world of tennis, a politically averse sport. They have defended themselves and their right to play the sport in their own way, to have careers that none of the powers-that-be imagined was desirable or feasible. They insisted that they could be serious, but not single-minded, professionals and well-rounded individuals with other interests. They spoke up for others, too, especially women.
Venus and Serena’s achievements outside of tennis are more about the cultural shifts they have contributed to and helped to inspire. They are recognizable by their first names alone worldwide. They are cultural icons and entertainers who cut across all genres of popular culture: fashion, music, film, and other sports. They show up, show out, and represent for the culture, flaws and all.
CP: Which makes it particularly painful for me, as a fan, to let them go. Yet, we have been anticipating Serena’s retirement for some time. She has had tough injuries. She does well but has been frustrated in the semi-finals and finals of the major tournaments. Even so, her departure is going to leave a big vacuum in the women’s game. Who will step up and fill her leadership role on the tour—and in women’s sports?
TH: Serena and Venus have inspired younger players, especially—though not exclusively, girls of color—to pick up tennis racquets and believe that one day they could also compete in the sport. It has taken a while, despite the early efforts of the Williams family to cultivate talent down the ranks, but there is now a bevy of players who can and will be great leaders. Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have shown sparks of interest, but it is too early to tell what their impact will be.
No matter what, none of these younger players will have to endure the same burdens, to the same degree, that Serena and Venus have faced. Venus, especially, has played a historic role in ensuring gender equity in prize money, which makes women tennis players the best-paid athletes.
Those sneakers will be hard to fill.
CP: I agree. In 2021, Osaka certainly put herself out there in relation to mental health issues, which opened the door for other athletes—even men—to come forward about their own struggles. And although she is multi-racial, Osaka really embraced #BlackLivesMatter and her own Blackness in 2021. Gauff also publicly identified herself with the Movement for Black Lives. Being willing to display such courage in a conservative sport is an important Williams legacy.
And I also agree that they have a kind of ease in speaking out and have been granted some grace upon entering the sport that Venus and Serena did not enjoy.
What do you hope Serena Willams will do next?
TH: I hope she will do what makes her healthy and fulfilled. Motherhood and entrepreneurship via Serena Ventures seem to be driving her the most as she discusses what she wants to do next. She is passionate about investing in innovative projects founded by women and people of color who face exceeding odds of attracting venture capital. But tennis has given her the resources and platform to strike the balance and pioneer in other arenas.
Interestingly, Venus has not yet announced plans for retirement. But when she does, I would love to see her continue in tennis in some way, like media commentary or coaching. Her niece Olympia may one day need her help. I’m excited to see what unfolds for both sisters.
CP: Thanks so much, Tera–I’ll see you on Twitter in a few weeks during the U.S. Open–I am sure we will both be there for every match Serena gets to play. And I am also sure we both secretly harbor the hope that she can win the tournament just one more time.
TH: Thanks, Claire. Fingers crossed. But as I’ve said before, Serena doesn’t need to hit another ball. Her legacy as the GOAT is sealed.
This article was originally published in Political Junkie. Reprinted here with permission.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).