Sun sets on the golden era of women’s tennis with Serena Williams’ retirement
Her tennis career might be at an end, but Serena Williams' influence in the sport and beyond will be felt for years.
The likely end of Serena Williams’ tennis career has left the game staring at the beginning of the end of the sport’s golden era, a dreaded prospect that has long been on the horizon.
The American, who will turn 41 this month, bid an emotional goodbye to the US Open with a third-round loss to Australian Ajla Tomljanović on Friday, in what may have been the last singles match of her glittering career.
Although Williams left the door slightly open on an unlikely comeback, her apparent departure – not unexpected, given her struggles with form and injury in the past 12 months – would have sent shivers down the spines of tennis administrators and organisers.
“She’s box office,” former British number one Greg Rusedski summed it up on Sky Sports after Williams informed the world of her decision last month in a Vogue article.
“She’s carried women’s tennis for the last two decades with her sister Venus as well. You’ve obviously had other great players around them, but she brings your non-tennis fan to the sport.
“If you know absolutely nothing about tennis, you know the name Serena Williams. She’s iconic and we’re losing an icon of our sport and she will be truly, truly missed.”
But it will not just be a loss for women’s tennis. Williams could be the first in a series of ageing greats to call time on their playing careers in the near future.
Like Williams, the triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated tennis for the last two decades and revolutionised the sport, drawing in new and old fans and a long line of sponsors.
All of them continue to lure fans to the stands, mobile and television screens even after two decades on the tour, while their commercial pull still mesmerises brands and advertisers.
Injuries to Williams, Federer and Nadal in recent years have raised the question of their retirement time and again. Fans and pundits have wondered how the sport would cope with the prospect of losing their most marketable athletes.
Federer, 41, has had multiple knee surgeries in the last two years and has not played a competitive match since going down in the quarter-finals of last year’s Wimbledon.
The 20-time major winner has only committed to playing the Laver Cup this month and his hometown tournament in Basel in October. It remains unclear if the father of four would be ready to commit to the rigours of the tour again.
At 36, Nadal is a bit younger, but a chronic foot issue forced the Spaniard to contemplate retirement in 2021 and again this year after he won a men’s record 22nd major title at the French Open, playing with numbing injections before each match in Paris.
A radio frequency treatment eased pain in his foot and allowed him to play Wimbledon, but the left-hander does not know whether the injury will flare up again.
The 35-year-old Djokovic is the youngest among the lot, undoubtedly the fittest and appears to be the best bet to keep the flag flying for tennis’ older generation.
The Serbian won his 21st major title at Wimbledon last month and has made it clear he does not lack motivation in chasing more silverware.
While the so-called Big Three of the men’s game have continued to stave off the younger generation when it comes to major success, Williams’ tennis career has been less productive in the past couple of years.
Her last Grand Slam triumph came in 2017 and she did not win a WTA title since lifting the ASB Classic in Auckland at the start of the 2020 season.
Despite all that, Williams remained the biggest draw in women’s tennis whenever she took the court.
“She’s an inspiration for a lot of people around the world. She gave a lot to tennis, so we are lucky to have had such a great ambassador like Serena for such a long time,” Nadal said after Williams’ defeat on Friday.
“She deserves to choose whatever fits for her at this stage of her life.”
From glossy magazine covers to generation-defining on-court styles, Serena Williams took a bow on Friday, having rewritten the fashion playbook for female athletes while building an empire of her own.
The 23-times Grand Slam winner chose the bible of women’s fashion, Vogue, to announce she was “evolving away from tennis” before taking to the court in her bedazzling Nike sneakers at the US Open this week under the watchful eyes of the magazine’s grande dame, Anna Wintour.
“Style and sport have always been closely intertwined, but no athlete embraced the power of fashion like Serena Williams,” Katie Abel, executive editor of Footwear News, told Reuters.
“She’s never shied away from boundary-breaking looks, on or off the court, and always knows how to send a message, even if it’s controversial.”
She famously competed in Flushing Meadows in a denim skirt in 2004 and ruffled feathers at Roland-Garros in 2018, when she wore a black catsuit to keep her circulation going after developing blood clots in the days after giving birth.
After organisers said they would ban the catsuit from their clay courts, Williams’ supporters cried foul. Williams quipped to the Associated Press: “When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender.”
The moment was an instant classic and showed she could harness fashion to disrupt the status quo, said Katie Lebel, a researcher of gender equity in sport and assistant professor at the University of Guelph.
“Sexism has been pretty pervasive when it comes to women’s clothing… The expectations around what women athletes should look like have been particularly steeped in that,” she said.
“Enter Serena and she pushed back against all this. I think she really rethought (the) uniform standards for women in tennis.”
Serena and her sister Venus brought Black style to the overwhelmingly white sport when they first took the court as professionals in the 1990s, facing criticism for wearing beaded braids in competition.
Williams wore the style when she won her inaugural Grand Slam in New York. Photos of daughter Olympia in identical plaits in the stands at Flushing Meadows this year were an instant sensation.
“From the moment Serena and her sister Venus stepped onto the court in their signature braids… they have been role models for Black women and aspiring female athletes everywhere,” said Abel.
Williams’ friendship with late Louis Vuitton artistic director Virgil Abloh resulted in one of her most memorable US Open ensembles, a ballerina-inspired Nike kit in 2018, when she got tantalisingly close to clinching a record-equalling 24th major title but came up short in the final.
While her run at the US Open is over, her work in New York has just begun, with a “Glam Slam” preview of new looks from her S by Serena brand planned for 12 September to coincide with New York Fashion Week.
And her retirement from competitive sport is expected to have little to no impact on her brand value – with Nike planning to continue its partnership with the 40-year-old.
“Williams may be retiring from tennis, but I’m guessing her influence on fashion is just getting started. Without her gruelling training schedule, I’d think she would have even more time and energy to focus on this category,” said W Magazine Fashion Director Nora Milch.
A bona fide fashion tycoon off the court, Serena was named to the board of shopping app Poshmark in 2019, opening her own closet alongside pieces from Olympia to customers on the fashion marketplace.
Manish Chandra, founder and CEO at Poshmark, said Williams has inspired several other female entrepreneurs to sell on the app by way of her unique voice and perspective.
“As a champion of female empowerment, Serena always leads with love and helps to ensure that our Poshmark community is front and centre in everything we do,” Chandra told Reuters.
“Her achievements and vision across the worlds of business, fashion and entrepreneurship made her a perfect fit for our board… She leads with humility, kindness and authenticity.” Reuters/DM