Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and a cultural touchstone since winning her first US Open in 1999, said in a magazine article published online on Tuesday that she planned to retire from the sport after playing again in the tournament, which begins later this month.
Williams, who long ago both changed and transcended tennis and became a beacon of fashion, entertainment and business, shifting the way people inside and outside of sports viewed female athletes, said in an as-told-to cover story for Vogue 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 was not explicit about when she might stop playing but hinted on Instagram that the US Open could be her last tournament while leaving the door ever-so-slightly open to continuing, or coming back, as players who step away from the game often do . “The countdown has begun,” she said, adding, “I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
Williams is competing at US Open tuneup tournaments, this week in Toronto and next week in Cincinnati.
Exiting the stage this year at the US Open would be a fitting end to Williams’s storied career. She won her first Grand Slam title there, in 1999, when she was just 17 years old, or 23 years ago, a number that matches her career Grand Slam singles tally.
“It feels like the right exclamation point, the right ending,” said Pam Shriver, a former player and a tennis commentator who was one of the great doubles champions of the 1980s. “It doesn’t matter her result, and it’s a conclusion that feels a lot better than last year at Wimbledon.”
At Wimbledon in 2021, Williams was forced to retire from her first-round match after just 34 minutes when she slipped and tore her hamstring.
The injury sidelined her for nearly a year. In fact, Shriver and others thought it was most likely that Williams might never officially retire but would instead drift into the existence that she assumed for nearly a year after her teary Wimbledon exit.
This spring though, Williams said she got the itch to play competitively again. In the Vogue story, she said that Tiger Woods convinced her to commit to training hard for two weeks and see what transpired. She did not immediately take his advice but eventually began hitting and signed up for the doubles competition at a Wimbledon tuneup event.
At Wimbledon in June, she played a spirited but inconsistent three-hour, first-round match but lost to Harmony Tan of France, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7), during which she showed flashes of the power and touch that had once made her nearly unbeatable.
Williams said that she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, planned to have another child.
“In the last year, Alexis and I have been trying to have another child, and we recently got some information from my doctor that put my mind at ease and made me feel that whenever we’re ready, we can add to our family. I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”
Williams’s last Grand Slam tournament victory came while she was pregnant during the Australian Open in 2017.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t ready to win Wimbledon this year,” Williams said. “And I don’t know if I will be ready to win New York. But I’m going to try. And the lead-up tournaments will be fun.”
Williams has won nearly $100 million in prize money.
For the moment, Williams is second to Margaret Court of Australia on Grand Slam singles championships, a record she had multiple chances to tie and then surpass in 2018 and 2019 when she lost four Grand Slam finals without winning a set. However, few in tennis believe that shortcoming should in any way tarnish the legacy that Williams leaves as the greatest female tennis player, one of the greatest players, and one of the greatest athletes in any sport.
Beyond all the championships — she has won 73 singles titles, 23 in doubles, two in mixed doubles and played on four Olympic teams, winning four gold medals — that may be her greatest legacy.
With her unique mix of power, strength, speed, touch and the tennis intelligence that produced her dominance, Williams relegated to irrelevance any distinction between great male and female tennis players and athletes as no woman had previously done. This was not accidental, Williams would occasionally interrupt journalists during news conferences if they identified her as one of the greatest female tennis players.
“Tennis player,” she would say.
“Tennis player,” journalists would say, and then continue with the question.
Her fellow professionals hardly resisted. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the great male tennis players of the 21st century — and the greatest the game has ever produced — spoke of Williams as one of them.
Last year at the US Open, as the pressure mounted on Djokovic to win one last championship to complete a rare calendar-year Grand Slam, he spoke of how only Williams could understand what he was going through.
Williams came to the US Open in 2015 having won the year’s first three Grand Slam singles titles but lost to the unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy in the semifinals in three sets after winning the first. A title at that US Open would have given her a fifth consecutive Grand Slam singles championship, since she had already won four consecutive Grand Slams singles titles for the second time. That feat became known as the “Serena Slam.”
Aug. 9, 2022
An earlier version of this article misstated Serena Williams’ age when she first won the US Open in 1999. She was 17, not 18.