Serena Williams has seemingly become as polarising as she is prolific in the tennis world, and naturally, conversations around her retirement have been at the forefront of conversation regarding the star in recent years. At an age where most athletes are referred to as ex-pro, it feels like we’ve all been waiting for a dream send off for Serena in the form of a shiny new grand slam with a bow around it, but the fairy-tale is yet to be completed. In fact, when she won the 2017 Australian Open it looked almost certain that she’d not only equal Margaret Court’s record, but blow it out of the park. Fast forward 4 years, and it looks like this Summer is the last chance for her to walk away with the winner’s cheque before it all goes past the point of no return.
First thing’s first – you can want to win all you want, but if your body doesn’t hold up, you’ve got little hope. Now Serena is no stranger to injury, but when you’re in the twilight zone of your career, those niggles start carrying extra weight. In September, after her loss at the US Open, Serena pulled out of the Italian Open due to an Achilles strain (which hampered her in the US Open), and then went on to pull out of the French Open 2 weeks later due to the same injury that saw her struggling to walk. This is all after more than a year of dealing with various physical issues, including ankle, knee and back problems. Right now, she’s been resting since her futile French Open campaign a few months ago, and has until January to get herself right again so she can be injury free for the Australian Open. Going by the last couple of years, she has only a relatively short amount of time before an inevitable injury brings her to a halt again – enough time to string 7 matches together in Melbourne? Sure. Jury’s still out about the rest of the year though.
Let’s not sugar coat it. When you’re 39, you’re automatically on the back foot against someone 15 years younger than you. And that’s exactly what Serena’s up against – the average age of the top 10 players in the women’s rankings is 25, with Serena sitting just behind at 11th. With age comes an inevitable change to your game, whether you like it or not. It gets to a point where you’re simply forced to tweak your game in order to compete with those in the process of finessing theirs. In Serena’s case, she has always been known for her powerful ability to finish points off quickly, paired with aggressive defence that sees her overcome opponents in a brute-force manner that leaves them wondering how they just lost 2 sets in the blink of an eye. However, opponents are quickly coming to realise that once she gets moved around more she loses that penetration and rapid-fire edge she once had. It’s not a matter of match fitness – it’s a matter of her body being able to do what her mind is telling it to in the same amount of time as it used to.
Since coming back from taking time off to start a family, Serena has been in the middle of number of controversies, namely to do with on-court outbursts (but also including off-court ones). Amongst racquet smashing, umpire abuse and various code violations have been claims of racism and sexism that have split people’s opinions (remember that cartoon?). Interestingly, Serena revealed she needed therapy after her infamous outburst at the 2018 US Open final, and was affected to the point of not wanting to pick up a racquet. This tells me that she’s only another dummy spit away from being seriously troubled in her pursuit for ultimate glory. It seems since having her daughter, she has a lot of pent up frustration and lacks the overall ability to keep her cool (which isn’t new – the scene she caused at the 2009 US Open was nothing short of disgraceful) which has seen her dubbed a sore loser at best, and just plain unlikeable at worst. So what does this have to do with the start of the new season? Evidently, she’s not only battling her body, but her mind as well; for her to start afresh in the new year and have a crack at the Australian Open off the back of a considerable rest will go a long way to success. This is a big chance for her to get out on Margaret Court Arena, all guns blazing, without having to deal with the turbulent wake of the politics of the tournament before.
Now, I should note that having other things going on for you in life isn’t a reason to lose. It’s simply a reason to slip into retirement more comfortably. One of the major things that Serena has going on for her at this point in her life is her family – she’s got a young daughter and husband who have been travelling around the world supporting her. Surely the idea of not sharing her life between them and tennis is beckoning pretty hard.
Also, apart from her tennis campaign, Serena is involved in a huge amount of other pursuits. She’s the Chief Sporting Officer for Aston Martin, as well as being on the board of directors for SurveyMonkey and an online clothing label. Serena also has her own fashion line with Nike, multiple of her own fashion labels, as well as nail, beauty and accessory lines to keep her busy. She’s also become increasingly involved in activism, is an ambassador for a number of charities and foundations, and has used her platform to speak out about the things she’s passionate about, which she has indicated she will continue to do, and would likely welcome the opportunity to be able to focus on it more. It shouldn’t be surprising that such a high profile and successful sporting star has a fair bit of endorsement behind them, but Serena is absolutely swimming in deals that you’d think would still be around after she calls it quits on-court.
Again, these things aren’t a direct reason to take the foot off the pedal, or retire. However, the longer her career continues, the longer the other aspects of her life will weigh against her all-encompassing tennis life. She has her equal best grand slam record at the Australian Open with 7 titles to her name, so if she doesn’t etch her name on the trophy again when she can, her chance at grand slam glory might be fleeting.
The remaining field
It’s going to be 4 whole years since Serena won a grand slam. In that time, her competition has developed into a considerable force, with the likes of Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep coming into prominence, not to mention Ash Barty. All of her (considerably younger) opponents are going to be raring to go for another season, however based on her form, it seems more and more unlikely than she can string enough matches together to win a slam.
To add to that, Serena was unable to win the US Open with a severely depleted field – 6 of the top 10 weren’t playing amidst Covid-19. This is more or less a sign that her ship is slowly sailing. Serena herself said “I love being out here. It’s my job. It’s been my job. And I’m pretty good at it still, so until I feel like I’m not good at it, then I’ll be like, Okay. And I’m so close to some things. I’m almost there.”
But you could argue that the opposite is true – what if her best has surpassed her (which the last few years would suggest), and she’s hovering at a frustrating level that leaves her walking away with the runner-up trophy at best? What if she’s not almost there, she’s simply just slipped off her peak?
Overall, between injuries and rehab, personal struggles and competing priorities, it would be surprising to see Serena competing at her best in the next 12 months. All things considered, the Aus Open could really be her best chance. Let’s wait and see.