Following her loss in the U.S. Open third round on Friday night, Serena Williams' professional tennis career is officially over. But in her second act, Williams may well leave marks on culture, business and politics as indelible as those she left on tennis.
Never the conformist, Williams has always been her unique and authentic self on the tennis court, and off. There may be no bigger reason for her enormous popularity (although her 23 Grand Slam titles might have something to do with it).
There may be no bigger reason for her enormous popularity (although her 23 Grand Slam titles might have something to do with it).
Serena and older sister Venus Williams defied tennis convention from the moment they burst onto the professional scene, on the cusp of the 21st century. They designed their own outfits, refused to kowtow to old-fashioned and prejudiced tropes and embodied strength, intelligence, beauty and femininity without having to compromise their truth.
Instead of appearing stoic after hitting a breathtaking shot, Williams celebrates her greatness in full-throated, fist-pumping glory. And her worldwide legions of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, as evidenced by the 41-year-old star's riveting, grueling, iconic match against Australian Ajla Tomljanović.
It should be her last ever professional match. As she told Vogue magazine in August, she is “evolving away from tennis.” But don’t expect her nonconformist ways to change once she hangs up her racket.
And who among us will be surprised?
In 2000, when she was 18, Williams withdrew from a tournament in South Carolina in support of an NAACP boycott of the state’s Confederate flag. She has done things her own way ever since. Williams is at the forefront of a different kind of superstar athlete: multi-hyphenate stars who — thanks to vast resources, ambition and talent — no longer retire. They just find a new mountaintop.
The week before the 2022 U.S. Open, Williams appeared at the New York Stock Exchange, not in tennis shoes but in stylish pumps, to ring the opening bell as CEO of Serena Ventures, her $111 million venture capital fund.
Williams’ company has already invested in around 60 companies, The New York Times reported, but she says she is particularly interested in women and male business owners of color, who have historically been underrepresented in the high-stakes world of venture capital investing. That money philosophy and investment savvy could influence other public figures to help level the corporate playing field.
Indeed, tennis ace Naomi Osaka, winner of four Grand Slam titles, has already followed her idol and become a prominent investor herself.
Williams’ forays into fashion are more established. From her childhood braids to her eye-catching dresses — and that French Open catsuit — Williams has always been incredibly involved in the creation of her (perennially Nike-branded) match looks. Despite the efforts of body-shaming internet trolls, Williams revels in her fuller-figured, athletic physique. The idea that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes is part of what motivates her fashion line, S by Serena, which she debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2020.
As a reigning GOAT (greatest of all time), Williams is part of a rarefied club. Unlike many (but certainly not all) GOATs of decades past — paging fellow Nike luminary Michael Jordan — younger stars like Williams, LeBron James and others seem increasingly willing to speak out forcefully on politics without worrying about sponsorship sensitivities or fan blowback. She has highlighted the cruel excesses of mass incarceration, homelessness, gun violence and pay inequality.
Williams’ 2018 HBO miniseries, “Being Serena,” gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how life as a Black female sports superstar intersects with racial animus. Williams also shared details of a pregnancy complicated by her history of blood clots and made unnecessarily stressful by dismissive responses from medical staff.
Daughter Olympia was born healthy and turned 5 on Sept. 1. But Williams’ experience resonated with many Black American women. Their maternal mortality rate is two to three times higher than that of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After her first-round U.S. Open victory Monday night, Williams told reporters she intends to give Olympia a sibling.
Williams has also partnered with Helping Hands Jamaica to build an elementary school on the Caribbean island and joined forces with Build Africa to construct schools in Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, one philanthropic effort among many.
Indeed, Williams appears to understand far better than most the major impact star athletes can have socially, culturally and politically.
When I interviewed Williams at the 2006 U.S. Open for a tennis book project, she told me she wanted to star in a movie about Althea Gibson — tennis’ first Black major champion in the 1950s. Williams impressed me with her knowledge of Gibson’s struggles, taught to her and Venus Williams by parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price.
Although Williams no longer seems to have the acting bug, she and Venus Williams were executive producers of an Oscar-winning film about their father, “King Richard.” It wouldn’t surprise me if Serena Williams as a producer gives the underappreciated Gibson her due in a feature film.
Actually, there’s very little Williams could do in her post-tennis life to uplift and inspire others that would surprise me. She’s already done more in her 40 years than most superstars accomplish ever. And yet incredibly, without the commitment and pressures of athletic competition, her most significant contributions may be yet to come.