Tennis legend Serena Williams has been a fierce advocate for gender equality both on and off the court — and when she announced her retirement from the sport Tuesday morning, she made an important point about the unique sacrifices women must make in their careers.
In a Vogue article, Williams, who turns 41 next month, said that she will retire after the U.S. Open, which begins in late August. A win at the tournament would tie her with Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles.
"I have never liked the word retirement," Williams wrote in the article, which was transcribed from her conversation with Vogue contributor Rob Haskell. "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."
Williams cited her family as the main reason why she will step away from the sport, writing that her 4-year-old daughter Olympia wants to be a big sister. Williams has been married to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian since 2017.
The desire to expand her family, however, wouldn't be a career-ending move if she were a man, Williams points out.
"Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family," she wrote. "I don't think it's fair. 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," Williams wrote, pointing to football legend Brady, 45, who has three children and played in the NFL for 22 seasons before announcing his retirement in February, before changing his mind and announcing that he would be returning for his 23rd NFL season just one month later.
"Don't get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia," she said, adding that she was "one of those annoying women who adored being pregnant" and worked up until her due date, which included winning at the Australian Open in 2017 when she was two months pregnant.
Williams endured serious health complications after the birth of her daughter, including a pulmonary embolism that left her bedridden for several weeks and postpartum depression.
Ahead of her 41st birthday, Williams realized she had a narrow window to get pregnant again. "I definitely don't want to be pregnant again as an athlete," she said. "These days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter."
Her retirement speaks to a broader challenge that working mothers continue to face in the U.S.: Past research has shown that women most often are the ones to adjust their work schedules and suffer significant career interruptions and setbacks in order to attend to their families' needs.
In the world of professional sports, this difference becomes even more pronounced — in an article for The Conversation, sports professors Margie Davenport and Tara-Leigh McHugh write that "the window of peak performance and the window of fertility for female athletes overlap in their twenties and thirties," often leaving female athletes who want to have children with "a difficult choice."
To date, Williams has 73 career singles titles, 23 career doubles titles and over $94 million in career winnings, CNBC reports. In addition to focusing on her family, the tennis star said she looks forward to expanding Serena Ventures, the venture firm she launched in 2019 to support women, people of color and young entrepreneurs.
Although Williams was hesitant to reflect on her legacy, acknowledging that the question always stumps her, she said that she likes to think that she "went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier" — and hopes that "women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court" as a result of her career.
"They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful," she wrote. "They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all."
But she also wants her legacy to transcend the sport that made her a household name. "Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis," Williams wrote. "I'd like it to be: Serena is this and she's that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams."
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