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Serena Williams hints at retirement, says she's "evolving away from tennis"

Serena Williams appears to be getting ready to step off of professional tennis courts for good. The legendary athlete, who's won countless titles — including 23 Grand Slams — over a playing career that has spanned nearly three decades, suggested that she intends to retire after the upcoming U.S. Open in a Vogue essay published on Tuesday.

Williams, 40, is currently playing in the Canadian Open, where she claimed her first singles victory in slightly more than a year earlier this week, and where she'll return to play another match on Wednesday. While continuing to face the world's top athletes in tournaments like Wimbledon and last year's French Open, Williams has also increasingly turned her attention to projects outside of tennis in recent years. 

In her new essay, she said that "evolving away from tennis" would give her an opportunity to prioritize other things.

"I have never liked the word retirement. 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," she wrote. "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."

One of those priorities, she said, is Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm she started several years ago. 

The other is her family and the hope of having another child with her husband Alexis Ohanian. Their daughter, Alexis Olympia, is now 4 years old. 

"I want to grow that family," she wrote. 

Serena Williams in her first round match at Wimbledon
Serena Williams in her first round match at Wimbledon at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 28, 2022.  Robert Prange / Getty Images

She opened the essay with an anecdote about overhearing Olympia's response to an automated question presented to her by an interactive smartphone app. When the robot voice asked her daughter what she'd like to be when she grows up, Williams recalled her daughter whispering, "I want to be a big sister" — something she apparently says "a lot" lately.

With 23 Grand Slam singles titles and a run of 186 consecutive weeks spent at No. 1 on tennis' global rankings list, Serena Williams has been a powerhouse figure in the sport since the mid-90s, when she first entered the professional arena as a teenager. Today, people familiar with tennis often refer to her as the G.O.A.T., or the Greatest of All Time. She and her sister Venus Williams' joint path to stardom was the focus of last year's widely-acclaimed film, "King Richard."

Williams acknowledged in Tuesday's essay that she faced particular challenges as a woman between having a family and dedicating herself to a top professional tennis career. 

"Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don't think it's fair," she said. "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."

"Don't get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia," Williams continued. "I was one of those annoying women who adored being pregnant and was working until the day I had to report to the hospital—although things got super complicated on the other side."

Williams previously spoke about the severe health complications she suffered after daughter was born, in another personal essay for Elle, published last spring, where she detailed the near-death experience. But prior to that, as she said in Vogue, Williams "almost did do the impossible."

"A lot of people don't realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017," she wrote. "But I'm turning 41 this month, and something's got to give."

Although Williams recognized that, for some of her friends and fellow tennis champions, like Caroline Wozniacki and Ashleigh Barty, the decision to "move on" from tennis was a positive one, she emphasized that coming to terms with her own next phase has been difficult.

"I've been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis," she said. "Alexis, my husband, and I have hardly talked about it; it's like a taboo topic. I can't even have this conversation with my mom and dad. It's like it's not real until you say it out loud. It comes up, I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat, and I start to cry."

Williams is, of course, aware of her legacy as a sports icon and trailblazer, and of her chances at one last Grand Slam trophy.

"I don't know if I will be ready to win New York. But I'm going to try," she wrote. 

Concluding the Vogue essay, Williams said she hopes that her legacy will include a range of achievements in addition to all those related to her tennis success.

"Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis," she wrote. "I admire Billie Jean [King] because she transcended her sport. 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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