Tennis legend Serena Williams has faced many a bitter battle in her life, both on and off the courts, be it the brutal training regimen she faced at the hands of her father-turned-coach, who fought off gang members so his daughters could train for victory on their local Compton courts, or the near-fatal medical complications she suffered after giving birth to her first-born child Olympia.
But it seems the GOAT has finally been faced with a challenge she cannot fight her way through: balancing her long-fought-for tennis career with her dreams of expanding her family.
After years of speculation about when – or if – she would ever retire from the sport that turned her into an international icon, Serena – who turns 41 later this month – finally announced that she is preparing to set down her racket once and for all.
In typical fashion for the woman who has repeatedly refused to conform to rules or regulations, earning herself a reputation for being something of a rebel on the courts, retirement is a word she refuses to use, instead insisting that she is simply ‘evolving’ beyond the sport in order to focus on a new set of goals: expanding her family and her lucrative endeavors away from the courts.
‘I have never liked the word retirement,’ she wrote in an essay for the September issue of Vogue – on which she appears as the cover star. ‘It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me… Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution.
‘I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.’
Still, while she is effectively throwing in the towel on her tennis career Serena is not going down without a fight – quite the opposite in fact – with the sporting star even using her retirement announcement to blast the ongoing gender disparity in sport while making clear her own feelings about her position as an athlete by comparing herself to Tom Brady.
‘I don’t think it’s fair,’ she said of her decision to retire. ‘If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.’
Admitting defeat is – in her own words – a ‘painful’ and ‘unhappy’ experience, particularly for a woman who has spent her life fighting it out for the sake of her sporting success, even as a child, when she was training under her father Richard, who famously fought off gang members to clear the courts for Serena and her sister Venus, made his daughters step over broken glass during a training session, and would repeatedly scream curse words at them to improve their mental strength.
After more than 25 impressive years leading the sport, Serena Williams has announced she is stepping away from tennis at age 41, and as she gears up to say farewell to the sport, FEMAIL has recapped her supersonic rise to tennis fame
‘I have never liked the word retirement,’ she wrote in an essay for Vogue. ‘It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me… Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis’
The sports star grew up in Compton, California, where her father had to fight off gang members so that she and her sister, Venus Williams, could use the local tennis courts. She is seen with her dad and sister in 1991
From overcoming poverty to her father’s intense training regimens, take a look back at Serena’s impressive career from start to finish – in honor of her preparing to close the tennis chapter in her life once and for all
That fighting spirit is something that has remained a constant throughout Serena’s career – whether she was arguing with umpires over their decisions, or engaging in a fashion war with the French Open officials after her choice of skintight black catsuit was deemed unsuitable for the tournament.
Her unwavering determination to reach the top of the sport was rewarded both on the court, with trophies, number one world rankings, prize money, and off, where she established herself as one of the most famous women in the world while amassing a fortune with endorsement deals, ad campaigns, and several of her own businesses.
That life of excess and extravagance could not be further away from Serena’s incredibly humble beginnings however, with the sporting star rising from a life of extreme poverty to one of extraordinary wealth – which will no doubt now increase as she turns her hand from her racket to her other money-making endeavors, including her newly-established venture capital firm Serena Ventures.
There remains, however, one major on-court challenge left for Serena to face.
Will she be able to go out with the same bang that she first entered the sport with 25 years ago, when she makes what many believe will be her final Grand Slam appearance at the US Open next month – her final opportunity to prove that she remains at the top of her game, despite a spate of recent loses?
The tournament will be likely be Serena’s last chance to go out swinging and winning – and cap off a career that has began with a fight to rise above her rough start in life, and may well end in a desperate battle to retain her GOAT status.
Inside Serena’s childhood: How her dad fought off gang members and made his daughters step over broken glass to become the tennis players they are today
Serena was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan, however, she and her family moved to Compton – a Los Angeles suburb that was once synonymous with crime – when she was young. She is seen in 1991
It was their dad, Richard Williams (seen with Serena in 1991), who sparked Serena and Venus’ love for tennis. It’s been reported that only became interested in it himself after noticing that there was a $40,000 prize for the winner
Serena was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan, however, she and her family moved to Compton – a Los Angeles suburb that was once synonymous with crime – when she was young.
It was their dad, Richard Williams, who sparked Serena and Venus’ love for tennis, and according to Biography.com, he only became interested in it himself after watching a match on TV and noticing that there was a $40,000 prize for the winner. Richard soon immersed himself in the game in his mission to propel his daughters to on-court success.
However, living in Compton posed a problem for the dedicated father, who was determined to turn Serena and Venus into pro athletes, since the area was riddled with gangs who wouldn’t let the Williams sisters use the local tennis courts.
He spent years feuding with the gangs in an attempt to gain access to the courts, and he once got into a physical altercation with some of them that was so brutal, it left him with numerous broken ribs and 10 teeth knocked out.
‘It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit,’ he wrote in his 2014 memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, about eventually gaining control of the courts. ‘But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours.’
Serena started playing tennis at age three, and her father was very hard on her, often yelling mean things at her and her sister in an attempt to strengthen them.
Richard spent years feuding with local gangs in an attempt to gain access to the town’s tennis courts, and he once got into a physical altercation that was so brutal, it left him with numerous broken ribs and 10 teeth knocked out. Serena is seen in 1991
Serena (seen in 1990) later recalled having to work harder than her sister at first, due to her smaller size. She said: ‘I think that taught me how to be mentally tough because Venus used to win her matches really fast and I would be out there grinding’
‘In order to be successful you must prepare for the unexpected – and I wanted to prepare for that,’ he told CNN later. ‘Criticism can bring the best out of you. Criticism is one of the greatest things, I think, that we’ve been trained to live through.’
Serena told Uninterrupted’s Kneading Dough that while she grew up in poverty – sharing a two bedroom house with her parents and six siblings – she never ‘felt broke.’
‘I never ever, ever felt broke. Looking back, I’m like, “Wow.” We lived in a two-bedroom house with seven people,’ she said.
‘I don’t know how my parents were able to make me feel that way, but they did, and it was special. So I never felt when I came into money that I needed to go buy this because I never wanted anything. So it was a great way.’
Richard’s determination to turn his daughters into star tennis players inspired the 2021 Academy Award winning movie King Richard, which starred Will Smith and Jon Bernthal.
By the time she was nine, the family decided to relocate again to West Palm Beach, Florida, so that Serena and Venus could train with acclaimed tennis coach Rick Macci.
‘What blew me away about Venus and Serena was the burning desire,’ Rick told the Palm Beach Post about working with the sisters in 2017. ‘Almost like, “I got to get every ball, I’m not letting anything get past me.”‘
Rick recalled their father pushing them by going out of his way to make their training more difficult.
‘Half the time he wouldn’t want new balls, he would use bad balls so the girls would have to run faster and bend lower,’ he explained. ‘He’d throw a beer bottle in the back of the court just so there’d be broken glass.’
Serena’s former coach, Rick Macci recalled their father pushing them by going out of his way to make their training more difficult, claiming he threw broken glass onto the court once. Serena is seen with her dad in 1991
Rick admitted that he thought Serena would either become a number one athlete or end up in jail, due to her intense determination. ‘She was fearless, and she hated to lose. She had to be the first in everything,’ he said
‘What blew me away about Venus and Serena was the burning desire,’ Rick (seen with Serena recently) told the Palm Beach Post about working with the sisters in 2017. ‘Almost like, “I got to get every ball, I’m not letting anything get past me”‘
In an essay for Complex, Rick admitted that he thought Serena would either become a number one athlete or end up in jail, due to her intense determination.
He wrote, ‘The one thing about Serena that always stood out with me was that she was fearless. She wasn’t afraid to miss. And she hated to lose. She had to be the first in everything, even if it was getting a drink of water.
‘I could remember playing tag with all the other kids in the sand pit. Just to work on agility, dexterity, you know. When she played tag, she played with a closed fist.
‘That’s how competitive this girl was. I told Richard one of two things was going to happen: She will be No. 1 in the world, or she will go to jail.’
During an interview with the Independent, Serena recalled having to work harder than her sister at first, due to her smaller size.
‘When I was younger, I was so small. I was like the runt. I didn’t have power, so I had to learn how to play other ways,’ she explained.
‘I think that also taught me how to be mentally tough because Venus used to win her matches really fast and I would be out there grinding, hitting lobs and fighting and grinding and grinding.
‘In the end I think that really developed me as a player, to learn how to win. Then when I did get bigger and stronger, it just helped me to win more easily.’
Serena’s family faced tragedy in 2003, when her half sister Yetunde Price, who served as her assistant, was murdered by members of the Southside Compton Crips gang.
She was shot and killed while she was sitting in a parked car with her boyfriend by gang members who mistakenly believed she was part of the rival gang.
A look back at Serena’s impressive tennis career: How she went on to become one of the top players on the globe
Serena (seen in 2022) competed in her first professional match in October 1995 at the Bell Challenge in Quebec, Canada, but lost in the first qualifying round
She then made history at the Ameritech Cup Chicago in 1997, when she became the lowest-ranked player to defeat two top-10 opponents in one tournament. She won her first major title at the 1999 US Open (pictured)
What makes Serena and Venus’ careers especially impressive is that neither of them participated in any junior tournaments before they went pro.
‘No nationals. No local tournaments,’ their coach, Rick, wrote in Complex, while reflecting on the two stars’ careers. ‘Never got on a plane and played an ITF and left the country.
‘Going out of the box or creating a whole new box, the path that they took was so unconventional. No tournaments.’
Serena competed in her first professional match in October 1995 at the Bell Challenge in Quebec, Canada, but lost in the first qualifying round.
She then made history at the Ameritech Cup Chicago in 1997, when she became the lowest-ranked player to defeat two top-10 opponents in one tournament. Serena was ranked at number 304, but beat players who held the number seven and number four spots.
She won her first major title at the 1999 US Open, and has since become one of the most highly acclaimed tennis players of all time.
She went on to win 23 Grand Slam titles in total, and has spent 319 weeks (186 of them were consecutive, which is the record) as the Women Tennis Association’s number one player. She has also won four Olympic gold medals. She is seen last year
Unfortunately, the athlete has faced hardship in her career. In 2001, she was booed by the audience, who yelled racist remarks and profanities at her when she stepped onto the court to face Kim Clijsters at the Indian Wells (pictured)
She went on to win 23 Grand Slam titles in total, and has spent 319 weeks (186 of them were consecutive, which is the record) as the Women Tennis Association’s number one player. She has also won four Olympic gold medals.
She said the incident left her ‘traumatized’ and with ‘mental anxiety’ and that she was ‘bawling’ afterwards
Unfortunately, the athlete has faced hardship in her career. In 2001, she was booed by the audience, who yelled racist remarks and profanities at her when she stepped onto the court to face Kim Clijsters at the Indian Wells, which she later said left her ‘traumatized.’
‘Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety. I remember sitting in the bathroom thinking, “Wait, I’m not gonna go back. I just don’t think I should do this. What if they start booing again?” It was really hard for me,” Serena said during an appearance on Red Talk Table last year, while reflecting on the moment.
‘It was so hard. I’ll never forget driving back, and [sister] Yetunde was there, and I remember just getting in the car and I was just bawling. I was at the gas station, there was no celebration, and I was just crying and crying and crying.’
She also wrote in an essay for Times, ‘This haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father.
‘He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.’
Most recently, Serena has unfortunately faced a series of losses. In 2021, she lost at the Australian Open against Naomi Osaka. She was also defeated by Nadia Podoroska at the Italian Open, while injuries forced her to withdraw from Wimbledon and the US Open that year.
Earlier this year, she competed in Wimbledon but fell in the first round to Harmony Tan. She recently earned her first win in over a year – 430 days, to be exact – after beating Nuria Parrizas-Diaz 6-3, 6-4 at the women’s National Bank Open in Toronto.
‘I’m just happy to get a win,’ she said afterwards. ‘It’s been a very long time, I forgot what that felt like.’
Serena’s other endeavors: How the athlete ventured out into the clothing industry and made a major name for herself in the world of fashion
Aside from her major tennis career, Serena has also earned a profit from her numerous sponsorship deals – including one with Nike that she signed in 2004 for $40 million. She is seen in July 2022
Serena (seen in 2022) has also landed endorsement deals with brands like Gatorade, Delta Airlines, Pepsi, OPI, Tampax, Intel, and Chase Bank, among others, and she serves as the Chief Sporting Officer for luxury car company Aston Martin
Aside from her major tennis career, Serena has also earned a profit from her numerous sponsorship deals – including one with Nike that she signed in 2004 for $40 million.
She has also flourished in the fashion industry, launching numerous clothing lines, and starred in a reality show with her sister in 2005. She also penned her own autobiography and acted in a few TV shows
She has also landed endorsement deals with brands like Gatorade, Delta Airlines, Pepsi, OPI, Tampax, Intel, and Chase Bank, among others, and she serves as the Chief Sporting Officer for luxury car company Aston Martin.
She has also flourished in the fashion industry, launching her own clothing line in 2004 called Aneres, which is her first name backwards.
She has also dropped a series of handbags and jewelry pieces under her brand Signature Statement. She also helmed a sustainable fashion line called S by Serena in 2019.
However, her bold fashion choices have also caused backlash for the star. In 2018, she stepped onto the court wearing a custom-made black catsuit while competing at the French Open, and while the outfit was beloved by fans, it sparked controversy after the French Tennis Federation claimed she ‘went too far’ with the look and that it didn’t ‘respect the game and the place.’
The all-black, figure-hugging ensemble – which resembled something a superhero might wear – was actually designed to prevent blood clots, but it was branded as a dress code violation by the Federation.
‘I love when fashion becomes a vehicle for sharing a powerful message,’ she later said in a statement.
She had all eyes on her once again when she donned a tutu dress designed by Off-White’s Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Nike at the US Open months later.
She paired the eye-popping look with fishnet tights and sparkly sneakers, and her outfit quickly went viral.
‘Serena Williams was told she wasn’t allowed to wear her Black Panther catsuit back to the French Open because she had to “respect the game.” So she showed up in a tutu,’ one person wrote.
Another added, ‘Sometimes you need to give the patriarchy the middle finger. Other times you need to wear a tutu. @SerenaWilliams, you absolute goddess.’
The athlete landed her own reality show alongside her sister, called Serena and Venus, which aired for one season in 2005.
She has also tried her hand at acting and has guest starred in numerous shows including The Simpsons, Law and Order: SVU, and ER.
In 2018, Serena stepped onto the court wearing a custom-made black catsuit while competing at the French Open, and the French Tennis Federation claimed she ‘went too far’ with the look and that it didn’t ‘respect the game and the place’
She had all eyes on her once again when she donned a tutu dress designed by Off-White’s Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Nike at the US Open months later
She and her sister wrote a book together, called Venus & Serena: Serving From The Hip: 10 Rules For Living, Loving and Winning, in 2005. She also dropped an autobiography, entitled On the Line, in 2009.
Williams took home $45.9 million before taxes in 2021 thanks to her corporate partnerships, brands, investments through her firm Serena Ventures, and creative projects, including the film King Richard, which she executive produced.
She also sits on the board of SurveyMonkey’s parent, Momentive, and in January 2022, she joined NFT company Sorare as an advisor.
Her first children’s book is due to be released in September 2022; she also owns a small stake in the Miami Dolphins.
Now, she plans to dedicate some of her time creating more business opportunities for women.
‘A few years ago, I was at a conference organized by JPMorgan Chase, where I watched a talk between Jamie Dimon and Caryn Seidman-Becker, the CEO of the security company Clear,’ she wrote in Vogue.
‘Caryn explained that less than 2 per cent of all VC money went to women. I figured that she misspoke. I thought, There’s no way that 98 per cent of that capital is going to men.
‘I approached her afterward, and she confirmed it. I kind of understood then and there that someone who looks like me needs to start writing the big checks.’
A deep dive into Serena’s personal life: How she almost lost her life while giving birth to her daughter in 2017
Serena met her future husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, in 2015 when they were both staying at the same hotel in Rome, Italy. The pair (pictured in July) tied the knot in November 2017
The couple welcomed a daughter together, named Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September 2017, but Serena nearly lost her life after giving birth
Serena met her future husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, in 2015 when they were both staying at the same hotel in Rome, Italy.
He proposed at the same place they first met one year later, in December 2016, and the pair tied the knot in November 2017 in New Orleans during a stunning Disney-themed wedding.
Their nuptials were attended by a slew of celebrity guests including Beyoncé, Anna Wintour, Kelly Rowland, and Kim Kardashian.
‘Comparing calendars isn’t romantic, but at the start of every year, Serena and I map out our schedules so that, ideally, there isn’t more than a week that we go without seeing each other,’ Alexis told Glamour in 2019 when asked how they make their romance work despite both of their busy careers.
She developed an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries, and a hematoma – a collection of blood outside the blood vessels – in her abdomen, and needed four surgeries
The couple welcomed a daughter together, named Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September 2017, but managing being pregnant with her athletic career wasn’t easy for the sports star.
‘My body has belonged to tennis for so long. I gripped my first racket at age three and played my first pro game at 14,’ she told Elle.
‘The sport has torn me up: I’ve rolled my ankles, busted my knees, played with a taped-up Achilles heel, and quit midgame from back spasms. I’ve suffered every injury imaginable, and I know my body.
‘When I found out I was pregnant two days before the 2017 Australian Open, my body had already switched allegiances.
‘Its purpose, as far as it was concerned, was to grow and nurture this baby that had seemingly materialized, unplanned.’
During childbirth, Serena was forced to get a C-section after her daughter’s ‘heart rate plummeted,’ and after welcoming the baby girl, she almost lost her own life.
‘After 20 minutes, the doctor walked in, looked at me, and said, “We’re giving you a C-section.” She made it clear that there wasn’t time for an epidural or more pushing,’ she recalled.
‘I loved her confidence; had she given me the choice between more pushing or surgery, I would have been ruined. I’m not good at making decisions.
Now, her priorities have changed. She told Elle, ‘Winning is now a desire and no longer a need. I still want the titles, the success, and the esteem, but it’s not my reason for waking up in the morning’
‘In that moment, what I needed most was that calm, affirmative direction. Since it was my first child, I really wanted to have the baby vaginally, but I thought to myself, “I’ve had so many surgeries, what’s another one?”
‘Being an athlete is so often about controlling your body, wielding its power, but it’s also about knowing when to surrender.
‘I was happy and relieved to let go; the energy in the room totally changed. We went from this intense, seemingly endless process to a clear plan for bringing this baby into the world.’
Serena explained that after the surgery she was in ‘excruciating pain’ and she developed an intense cough, which resulted in her stitches ‘bursting open.’
‘I began to cough. The nurses warned me that coughing might burst my stitches, but I couldn’t help it. The coughs became racking, full-body ordeals. Every time I coughed, sharp pains shot through my wound,’ she recalled.
‘I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing because I just couldn’t get enough air. I grabbed a towel, rolled it up, and put it over my incision.
‘Sure enough, I was hacking so hard that my stitches burst. I went into my first surgery after the C-section to get restitched.
‘Little did I realize that this would be the first of many surgeries. I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries.
‘The doctors would also discover a hematoma, a collection of blood outside the blood vessels, in my abdomen, then even more clots that had to be kept from traveling to my lungs.’
She ended up needing four surgeries in seven days – but she has since fully healed; and she told Elle that becoming a mom changed her priorities.
‘Since I’ve had my baby, the stakes of the game have shifted for me. I have 23 Grand Slams to my name, more than any other active player. But winning is now a desire and no longer a need,’ she added.
She also told Vogue in its latest issue that she and her husband are now trying to have another child, which is part of the reason she is now stepping away from the sport
‘I have a beautiful daughter at home; I still want the titles, the success, and the esteem, but it’s not my reason for waking up in the morning.
‘There is more to teach her about this game than winning. I’ve learned to dust myself off after defeat, to stand up for what matters at any cost, to call out for what’s fair—even when it makes me unpopular.
‘Giving birth to my baby, it turned out, was a test for how loud and how often I would have to call out before I was finally heard.’
She also told Vogue in its latest issue that she and her husband are now trying 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,’ she said. ‘I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.’
Serena is not quitting tennis immediately, as she is currently playing in a tournament in Toronto. She is still hopeful she can play at the US Open in New York later this month, and she’s also committed to playing at next week’s Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
She concluded: ‘But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.’
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