- Serena Williams announced she'll be retiring after this year's US Open.
- The legendary athlete has cemented her name as one of the most successful tennis players of all time.
- Williams has widely been credited for increasing racial diversity in women's sports.
Legendary tennis star Serena Williams has announced she is exiting the court. She leaves behind a legacy that will be felt by women and Black athletes for generations to come.
On Tuesday, August 9, Willams announced that she'll be retiring after this year's US Open, which is taking place later this month. In a column for Vogue, the legendary tennis star said she made the decision to focus on her family life and work on her venture capital firm, Serena Ventures.
"I'm here to tell you that I'm evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me," Williams said.
Williams has cemented her name as one of the most successful tennis players, and one of the most successful professional athletes, of all time. The 23-time Grand Slam champion has been the face of tennis since winning her first US Open in 1999.
On top of her historic wins, Williams has been a powerful advocate for increasing racial and gender representation both on and off the courts.
"I don't particularly like to think about my legacy. I get asked about it a lot, and I never know exactly what to say," Williams said in her Vogue column. "But I'd like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful. They can wear what they want and say what they want and kick butt and be proud of it all."
Changing the face of tennis and women's sports
Alongside her sister Venus, Williams has been widely credited with fostering diversity in tennis and women's sports.
The tipping point for women's professional tennis didn't come until 1970, when women tennis players banded together to protest the stark disparity in championship prizes for men and women.
Even then, tennis was a mostly-white sport in the 1980s and 90s due to barriers like dress codes and high club fees.
When Williams won the 1999 US Open championship, she became the first Black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a Grand Slam singles title. She's since gathered a dazzling array of wins, and holds the most combined major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles among all active players.
"We changed it from being two great Black champions to being the best ever, period. And that's what we did. We took out color and we became the best," Williams told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
Battling racist attacks
As one of the leading Black athletes in tennis, Williams has faced a slew of racist incidents and remarks throughout her career.
In the beginning of Williams' professional career, commentators like John McEnroe and Mary Carillo frequently discussed the hair beads she and her sister wore on court, describing them as "noisy and disruptive." Some scholars have said the commentary served to "other" the sisters in a white-dominated sport.
During the Indian Wells tournament final in California in 2001, the crowd booed Williams, Venus, and their father Richard, yelling racial slurs and accusing Williams of "match-fixing."
In 2018, Australian newspaper the Herald Sun published a cartoon of Williams that many decried as racist. And a Romanian TV-show host said in 2019 that Williams looked like "one of those monkeys at the zoo with the red asses."
Fierce advocate for equality
In the face of the discrimination she's faced throughout her career, Williams has been a fierce advocate for gender and racial equality in sports.
Williams has pushed for equal pay, pointing out that "Black women earn 17% less than their white female counterparts and that Black women are paid 63% of the dollars men are paid."
When Williams won Wimbledon in 2007, she became the first woman to be paid equally to her male counterpart, Roger Federer.
The Williams sisters have championed the $18 million renovations of a tennis center in a low-income neighborhood in DC.
Many young Black athletes have followed the paths paved by the Williams sisters. Tennis players like Naomi Osaka, Grand Slam champion Sloane Stephens, and teen up-and-comer Robin Montgomery have all cited Williams as their inspiration.
According to an analysis by Sports Marketing Surveys, participation among Black tennis players increased by 44% between 2019 and 2021, from 1.6 million to 2.3 million.
This growth is more evident in women's tennis than in men's. According to Martin Blackman, general manager of player development at the United States Tennis Association, about 15% of Black girls and just 5 to 7% of Black boys participated at USTA tennis camps, the New York Times reported in 2020.
A record number of Black women represented America in the 2020 US Open's single draw.
Blackman said the spike in Black female tennis players can be attributed to the Williams sisters' legacy.
"They've just changed the paradigm," Blackman told the Washington Post in 2020. "It showed a lot of families — a lot of African American families — that if your kids have the desire and the ability, you can make it happen. That's what you're seeing now."