The 6 key statements in Serena’s farewell letter

Serena Williams wrote an essay in Vogue to let everyone know why she will retire from tennis just before turning 41. Tennis Majors released six key sentences that help to understand the complex mindset a champion who has not played much since her latest Grand Slam final in 2019.

Serena Williams and her daughter Olympia, 2020 Serena Williams and her daughter Olympia, 2020 \ © Stephen Lovekin / REX / SIPA

It’s not a classic interview in a Q&A mode. Serena Williams was interviewed by journalist Rob Haskell, who repurposed the content in an autobiographical format. It’s what you can call a column, or an essay of 3,000 words – a massive effort in journalistic terms.

This testimony released by Vogue, with every sentence considered, is a 10-minute “must read” (in Serena’s own words on Twitter). It’s the way in which the champion chose to let the world know why she won’t be playing tennis following the US Open.

In this text that discusses sports, family, business and psychology issues, any tennis nerd will find some answers to the questions asked about the 23-time Grand Slam champion. Why did she play so little these past few years? Why had she been reluctant to admit that her life is far from tennis courts now? Nonetheless, why is she still seeing herself as a US Open contender?

1.  I want to be a big sister.”

This statement, of course, was not made by Serena – who is the youngest of five. It’s a mantra often said by her daughter, Olympia, soon to be 5 years old, who dreams about having a little sister – not a brother. However, her mom should soon explain that it’s 50-50! Any story needs a good catch-line and the fact that Serena gets straight to the point by revealing some episodes of her private life involving her daughter goes straight to the point.

Serena has multiple identities and commitments, and being a mother of one now – perhaps two soon, when the couple is ready, she writed – has become the priority in her life. The former world No 1 says she has not been away from her daughter for more than 24 hours in her life and remembers her total commitment in everyday tasks involving Olympia when she was dealing with her Wimbledon injury last year.

It should also be noted that Olympia is part of the featured image used for Vogue’s cover story. Family first: that’s the crystal clear message Serena is bringing to the tennis world.

2. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

“Evolving away from tennis” is special way not to say “retirement.” “Evolution” is the other word used by the American. She spends the first third of the text, after the family catch-line, explaining why she is not in peace with the word “retirement” – an old-fashioned word in her eyes.

Maybe, we can add, it feels like a “small death,” which is often said about high-profile athletes and something Serena doesn’t want to experience. Nevertheless, the message is clear. It is also in the headline : “retirement in her own words”.

Basically every media outlet, Tennis Majors included, understands that this is an imminent retirement from the WTA Tour and an end of Serena’s quest for more Grand Slam titles. In addition to Olympia, the “other things that are important to (her)” mentioned by Serena are business investments with Serena Venture – the main non-tennis commitment made before starting a family.

Serena Williams, Wimbledon 2021
Serena Williams, Wimbledon 2021 | © Serena Williams

3. “The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams. Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help.”

Serena is probably clearer than ever on how much the race for the record of Grand Slam singles titles mattered to her. She first recalls that her goal as a young pro was to win the US Open, which she did in 1999 at age 17.

But she once admitted she was an underachiever, as Patrick Mouratoglou told her when they started in 2012. She had 10 slam trophies at home when she was 30, and the hunger for more became a mission.

Let’s recall the facts: Serena has won the most single trophies in the Open Era on the women’s side (23), but the all-time leader remains Margaret Court (24; 13 before the Open Era and 11 after). Serena didn’t mention any specific match that has kept her one short of equaling Court, but you can rewind the tape of extra-pressure matches she lost like the 2015 US Open semi-final against Vinci and the four major finals she lost following her pregnancy (US Open 2018 to Osaka, US Open 2019 to Andreescu, Wimbledon 2018 to Kerber, and Wimbledon 2019 to Halep).

Serena did not win any Slam after the 2017 Australian Open, when she played pregnant (the world would learn later on). The American was injured (and even close to death because of a pneumonia in 2010), overwhelmed by pressure, and then years later a mother.

There was no mention of the pandemic in the text. Serena said that she doesn’t want to be forced to choose between motherhood and a tennis career, but that’s eventually what happened to her both in recent years and now. That leads to the next key sentence.

4. “I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”

By writing this line and also “these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter,” Serena made it clear why she won’t keep trying to win a 24th major after the 2022 US Open.

If I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter

Serena Williams

She also let everyone know how her priorities were hard to manage over the past five years. That explains why her schedule was so thin between Grand Slams, why she was not 100% fit for each of them in 2020, 2021, and 2022, and why she skipped two majors this year (Australian Open and Roland-Garros) after previously hinting that she might play.

“I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete,” Serena concluded. Thus she won’t be an athlete anymore.

Serena Williams, Australian Open 2017
Serena Williams at the Australian Open in 2017 (Panoramic)

5. “I don’t know what to do. I think I’m over it, but maybe I’m not over it.”

That was the sentence Serena shared with golf legend Tiger Woods earlier this year. The conversation happened to be decisive in Serena’s recent decision to play Wimbledon and the US Open. Woods advised to give it a try at the All-England Club even with just two weeks of practice. Serena eventually did it, loved it, and was back at competitive tennis.

The sentence is an open book on the uncomfortable nature of an elite champion’s position between supreme confidence – and full awareness of opponents’ level – and the deep humility and stress coming through. Serena knows she’s a special one, able to make miracles without being at 100%. She was clear on that point while speaking in Toronto on Monday, when she said, “Literally I’m the kind of person who it just takes one or two things and then it clicks. So I’m just waiting on that to click.”

When they still worked together, Mouratoglou emphasized that his role and goal was to once again find that click that makes Serena so special.

Based on her record in 2022 (1-1), Serena winning the upcoming US Open may look like a silly thought today. Then again, it was crazy to see Woods win the Masters in 2019 and Pete Sampras win the US Open in 2002. Williams is clearly chasing the same kind of journey in New York. Even if she loses twice in Toronto and Cincinnati beforehand, don’t count her out…. Because it’s sport, because it’s tennis, because it’s Serena  Williams at the US Open.

6. “I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis.”

Serena is clearly emotional about closing a story that began when she was a little girl, following the path of her sister Venus and her father Richard – when only they believed in their destiny. That story was told in the movie “King Richard,” which Serena mentions as a milestone.

Serena et Venus Williams
Serena and Venus Williams | © Panoramic

She was not always forthcoming about her love for the sport of tennis, but the lines in this article are among the clearest on her connection with the courts line, the net, the balls, the racquet, and the game in general.

When it comes to Serena, it’s about winning and about performing for people more than being a tennis nerd. But tennis brought everything to Serena: glory, fame, and money, for sure. But she doesn’t really mention them. She mentions the emotions (with a special shout out to the Australian people) that changed her forever and that still lead her to cry when she realizes what she’s going to miss forever.

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