Canadian Open 2022: Serena Williams begins countdown to retirement with first win in over a year
Williams talks in Toronto about her impact on next generation, ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, as Vogue publishes her plans
Over a career now spanning 24 years, there is little that Serena Williams has not achieved in tennis. She has more Majors in the Open era than anyone else, man or woman—23 of them—and 16 more in doubles.
She has won Olympic singles gold—plus three more golds in doubles—and the Billie Jean Cup with the USA.
She has won the WTA Finals five times, and held the No1 ranking for 319 weeks—all-time third—with a record-equalling 186-week stretch from 2013 to 2016.
And this week she opened at the Toronto 1000 tournament with her first match-win since turning 40. It also happened to set a new women’s record for wins at the Canadian Open, 35 of them.
For this tournament, one of the oldest in the tennis calendar, has brought out the best in Williams since she reached the final in her first appearance as a teenager in 2000. Only once in nine appearances has she fallen short of the semis, winning the title three times from five finals. Perhaps no surprise then that it should be in Toronto that she won her first singles match in 14 months.
The last was her fourth-round run at the French Open last year, but a few weeks later, she injured her leg during her first set at Wimbledon, and did not play again until this year’s Wimbledon. The positive signs for Williams were that she played three-plus-hours in a hugely intense battle against Harmony Tan in her opener. She ultimately lost, but at last, in Toronto, she scored a battling win.
And although the scoreline of 6-4, 6-3 looked convincing, Williams had to dig deep against the 57-ranked Nuria Parrizas Diaz. But when has one of the greatest players ever to lift a racket done anything but dig deep?
And she was clearly happy, certainly relaxed in her subsequent press conference:
“Happy to win a match, since it’s been so long. It’s just one win, it’s been a very long time, I forgot what it felt like.”
She was then asked, as she has been so often before, about what motivates her to stay playing—and her answer revealed far more than usual:
“I guess a light at the end of the tunnel—I’m just getting closer to the light. Lately that’s been it for me; can’t wait to get to that light.” And she roared with laughter.
What, then, was the light? The answer was short but full of meaning:
“Freedom… Yeah.” Her answer drifted in thought, before she caught herself.
“I love playing though, it’s amazing.” And she continued:
“I can’t do this forever, and sometimes you want to try and be your best and enjoy the moment and do the best you can.”
Asked about her influence on, and the importance of, the new generation of players—and there are three teenagers in the top 20, while No1 Iga Swiatek is just 21—she reflected:
“It’s great to have an impact in anyone’s life. There’s people impacted my life and I know what it felt like to just want to be like that, and to be better. It’s a good feeling to have other people feel that way about you and just encourage them to be better.
“Because that’s what it’s all about, making your mark, and then someone else does better and that’s how it keeps going…
“New champions are coming and will take over, and that’s exciting.”
It proved to be a prescient press conference. Within 12 hours or so, a new edition of Vogue, the cover of which has featured Williams many times, hit the headlines. Toronto, it transpires, might herald the final short but sweet chapter of her great career.
In a long piece, she began:
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair…. But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.”
Those words preluded what, in effect, went on to explain her imminent retirement, and although she did not explicitly say where or when, the inference was clearly that she hopes to make her exit at her home Major.
The US Open, where she won the first of her 23 Majors in 1999, takes place in three weeks’ time and concludes just before that 41st birthday. It is the right place and, it appears, the right time, affirmed surely by the Instagram post that hit social media at the same time:
“There comes a time when we have to decide to move in a different direction. That time is always hard when you love something so much… But now, the countdown has begun… I’m gonna relish these next few weeks.”
In her extended Vogue piece, she elaborated:
“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. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family.
“But I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis. 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…”
It may have been part of the bigger plan, too, to have her daughter watch her mother’s win in Toronto yesterday. Olympia had, Williams said, never seen her play a match before.
“So I was super excited, looked over and saw her in the middle of the first set, I was like, ‘Oh my god, why is she here?’, and I went into mom mode. I said, ‘Serena, let go and enjoy this, and it was good for her to have that memory… I’m so happy that she came out there. It was really cool, and then I was like, no racket smashing, stay calm”—and she laughed again.
She is realistic about how her departure will happen: perhaps not in a final Major victory, as Pete Sampras had managed in 2002 before departing tennis for good.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don’t know if I will be ready to win New York. But I’m going to try… I know there’s a fan fantasy that I might have tied Margaret [Court] that day in London, then maybe beat her record in New York, and then at the trophy ceremony say, ‘See ya!’
“I get that. It’s a good fantasy. But I’m not looking for some ceremonial, final on-court moment. I’m terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst. But please know that I am more grateful for you than I can ever express in words.”
It is safe to say that there will not be a dry eye in the house in Toronto when she bows out—perhaps with another win, perhaps not—and certainly not in New York come September. But the mighty Serena will be back, of that there is no doubt.
Just not on a tennis court.
Elder Williams sister Venus, now age 42, has also not won a match in over a year, and after losing her opener in Washington last week, bowed out of Toronto in an early-hours loss to Jil Teichmann in Round 1.