Let’s Stop Asking When Serena Will Retire and Start Appreciating Her While She’s Here
Maybe four minutes after Naomi Osaka notched the final point, the Serena Williams retirement rumours began. Context is important here, so let’s set the stage. Williams had just lost to Osaka in straight sets in the Australian Open semi-final. She fought hard, but it was clear that Osaka had outclassed her. Before leaving the court, Williams paused to wave as the half-capacity crowd gave her a standing ovation. She put a hand on her heart, looking emotional. And . . . cue the gossip. Cue the speculation that this was her official “farewell,” either to the Australian Open or her professional career.
The rumours made it into her post-match press conference, where a reporter asked her point-blank what the hand-over-heart gesture meant. “The Aussie crowd is so amazing,” Williams answered, implying that it was a way of thanking attendees for their support. This may have been especially important to her after a year of playing without fans. But when pressed as to whether it was some kind of permanent goodbye, Williams smiled. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said. Moments later, she walked out of the press conference early, looking tearful, telling reporters, “I’m done.” And just like that, the rumour mill was off and running, upending the conversation around a much-anticipated matchup of tennis superstars and turning it into a “when will Serena retire?!” roundtable.
Every athlete hits a point in their career where we start talking about them in the past-tense, but with Serena, these questions aren’t new. In fact, they date back to even before her pregnancy in 2017. (At this point I’ll remind you that she she proceeded to win the 2017 Australian Open during her first trimester.) It’s true that since giving birth to Olympia, Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam. She’s only played in *checks notes* four major finals, two semi-finals, and one quarter-final, while maintaining a ranking no lower than 15th in the world. Two days ago, she only defeated Simona Halep, ranked No. 2. “She was stronger,” Halep said afterward. Her performance on the court does not read as an athlete who’s finished.
Then there’s the fact that this newest round of speculations is, again, going off of a hand gesture and a press conference, both in the heat of the moment following an intense and emotional match. She lost, she was upset about it, and she was grateful for her fans’ support. Maybe she got emotional because, I don’t know, she’s one of the fiercest competitors on the planet and she really, really wanted to win. Forcing the tired narrative that this must be the last we’ll see of Williams (because she . . . waved to the crowd?) is frustrating for fans who’d rather talk about her current talent and not her retirement date. And it’s frankly disrespectful to the undisputed greatest of all time, who if nothing else has earned the right to go out on her terms, when she sees fit.
At 39, Williams is performing at a high-enough level to crack the top ten and make it to the semi-finals in a Grand Slam. The player she lost to was Naomi Osaka, currently ranked No. 3 in the world and looking as impressive as we’ve seen her, and (while we’re on the subject) whose steely-nerved comeback after two shaky first games has been unfairly overshadowed. Personally, my primary concern is not “when will Serena Williams retire?” but “when will I get to watch her play again?” I want a rematch with Osaka and another chance to see two Black women athletes at the top of their game going head-to-head. I want to see if she can overtake Halep again. I want to watch her bear down in another final, or three, or 10. I want to see how much further she can push the game of tennis and how many little girls who once looked up to her, as Osaka did, will find themselves facing her across the court. Sure, at some point she’ll retire. Well, probably. (I mean, Venus is 40 and, injuries aside, she’s not slowing down.) But how about right now, we just appreciate this history-making greatness while we have it in front of us, serving up aces with her daughter in the crowd.