The world first came to know Serena Williams as a 17-year-old with beaded braids, overwhelming power and precocious intelligence and poise when she stunned her sport by winning the first of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles at the 1999 U.S. Open.
So began a journey that, with plenty of help from her sister Venus and her trailblazing parents, changed the game, transcended tennis and turned Williams into a beacon of fashion, entertainment and business, shifting the way people inside and outside of sports viewed female athletes.
On Tuesday, Williams set the stage for the tennis part of that journey to conclude at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the U.S. Open, where it began so many championships, battles, fist pumps and screams of “Come on!” ago.
In a first-person article in the famed September issue of Vogue, published online on Tuesday, Williams said that she planned to retire from the sport after playing in the U.S. Open, which begins later this month, for the 21st time. And as she has for more than two decades, Williams made the announcement with her own unique twist, stating in the as-told-to cover story that she has “never liked the word retirement,” and preferred the word “evolution” to describe her next steps.
“I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” including working with her venture capital firm and growing her family, she said.
Williams was not explicit about when she might stop playing, but she hinted on Instagram that the U.S. Open could be her last tournament while leaving the door ever-so-slightly open to continue, or to come back, as players who retire often do. “The countdown has begun,” she said, adding, “I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
Williams is playing this week at a U.S. Open tuneup tournament in Toronto and is scheduled to play in Cincinnati during the next week.
Asked Monday after her straight-sets win over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz of Spain what motivated her now, Williams said “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Lately that’s been it for me,” she added. “I can’t wait to get to that light.”
Though some in tennis are skeptical that Williams will step away imminently, exiting the stage this year at the U.S. Open would be a fitting end to her storied career. Williams has won the singles title there six times, beginning in 1999, when she leapfrogged her older sister Venus to claim the family’s first Grand Slam championship 23 years ago, a number that matches her career Grand Slam tally. The tournament has also been the site of some of Williams’s lowest moments, including confrontations with umpires and tournament officials in the semifinals in 2009 and the finals in 2018.
“It feels like the right exclamation point, the right ending,” said Pam Shriver, the former player and tennis commentator who was one of the great doubles champions of the 1980s. “It doesn’t matter her result.”