Serena Williams, almost 41 years into her eternity, will keep aging well. She will be done playing competitive tennis soon, perhaps within the next few days, but that means only that the cultural icon can supersede the player. This is her commencement, not a finale.
With sustained excellence and persistent authenticity, Williams has been able to acquire it all: admiration, fame, wealth, power, transcendence. As she leaves tennis, her exit velocity is stirring to observe. She’s not just receiving her flowers. She’s not just assured a legacy that will ripple through all of sports forever. She’s not just cemented in pop culture and primed to become a multifaceted mogul. Williams still has infinite blank pages in her playbook, a pen that won’t run out of ink and the freedom to design the rest of her life however she wants, knowing she has the leverage to implement those dreams.
“I have never liked the word retirement,” Williams wrote in a Vogue cover story announcing her farewell plans. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution.”
The most extraordinary athletic lives require distance to fully comprehend. Williams has accomplished and meant so much that she’s impossible to capture in this moment, even though she has been in the public eye for a quarter century. Time will make her tale all the more impressive as perspective catches up with wonderment. But even then, she will still seem like a figure from the future. Her mighty brand will strengthen. Her example will inspire for generations. And her earning potential will remain so high you will think she never stopped playing.
Forbes estimates Williams’s net worth to be $260 million. A year ago, she didn’t play much and earned about $300,000 for her on-court performance. Nevertheless, she grossed another $45 million, mostly from endorsement deals with about a dozen companies ranging from Nike to Gucci to Anheuser-Busch. She launched a clothing line three years ago that continues to be successful. She and her sister Venus have owned a small stake in the Miami Dolphins since 2009. She announced in March that her venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, raised $111 million in its initial round.
Williams is married to Alexis Ohanian, an entrepreneur who co-founded Reddit. Before they fell in love, they bonded while talking business. Williams will stay relevant through financial savvy, celebrity and the idolization of younger stars who will follow her script.
Naomi Osaka has already learned from Williams, and with her own style she has become the highest-paid female athlete in sports. In our male-dominated sports society, there is no women’s sport that stays top of mind for an extended period, which undermines the marketability of even the biggest stars. But there are holes in this misogynistic setup, and because Williams kept at it for so long, she was able to carve out her own space with an approach that can be mimicked and expanded.
At a time when authenticity is gold, Williams epitomizes it. She never changed. She excelled through the skepticism, sexism and racism. Her prolonged greatness forced almost everyone to get on her level or shut the hell up.
“I definitely view her as a role model,” said Aliyah Boston, a South Carolina forward and reigning national player of the year in women’s college basketball. “Powerful and strong women dominating is something that’s important for me to see. I want to follow in her footsteps.”
It always comes back to the image of power Williams projects. She is defined by her muscular frame and the force with which she plays. Boston is 20 years younger than Williams. She was born just as Williams began to take over tennis. As she grew into a physical 6-foot-5 post player, Boston looked for athletes who could reassure her that dominance fit with femininity. Williams showed Boston there is beauty in power — and there is beauty in unapologetic Black women who unleash their power.
In Williams, Boston saw a fashion icon with a 125-mph serve. She saw Williams twerking in a Beyoncé music video and then smashing her racket at the U.S. Open. She saw power — in Williams’s play and personality. But most of all, Boston saw a woman free to be a complete woman.
“When I was younger and playing sports, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to look too aggressive and angry,’ ” said Boston, 20, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Serena, she’s dominant, but she is who she is. She never changes herself for anyone. To be able to see that was a great vision for me because stepping on the basketball court as a post player, you never want to get punked. That’s who we are. That’s how we compete. I can embrace that, and off the court I can embrace my girly side.”
The world tries to convince us this is the opposite of grace, but after nearly three decades in the spotlight, how can you not see the grace in Williams? If her power once alarmed the gatekeepers of perception, she wore them down with her relentlessness.
Williams mastered the concept of owning your narrative, yet she still comes across as human, vulnerable and real. She will exit tennis as an honest and open mother, as a boss and, in many minds, as the GOAT. And this is just the end of Phase 1.
It is clear you haven’t seen the last of Serena Williams. But what if you haven’t seen the best of her, either? As the icon commences with evolution, the revolutionary tennis star lives on in the athletic successors who will follow her blueprint. The future looks inspiring.