LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Serena Williams recently played what might be her final professional tennis match. With 23 singles Grand Slam titles to her name and more in doubles and mixed doubles, she’s had a singular, remarkable career. Along the way, she’s had an enormous impact on culture inside and outside sports. And even as she steps away from this phase of her life in tennis, she’s started more conversations about the way athletes’ public lives change as they get older. I’m Linda Holmes, and today we’re talking about tennis superstar Serena Williams on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining us today is the co-host of NPR’s Code Switch, Gene Demby. Hi, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: What’s good, Linda? So good to finally see you after all this time.
HOLMES: It absolutely is. And also joining us is Soraya Nadia McDonald, senior culture critic for Andscape. Welcome back, Soraya.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Thank you for having me once again.
HOLMES: I am so delighted that you are both here because even I, who do not discuss tennis that much, have discussed tennis with both of you. And listen, you guys don’t need me to tell you who Serena Williams is. The conversations about the superlatives she deserves are mostly about the distinctions between being the best women’s tennis player of all time or the best tennis player of all time or the most dominant athlete of all time. She has a huge trophy collection. She and her sister, Venus, helped produce a film about their lives called “King Richard” that won an Oscar for Will Smith. Maybe you remember those Oscars. She’s a venture capitalist, and she won the 2017 Australian Open when she was two months pregnant.
In early August of 2022, she wrote an essay in Vogue in which she announced her evolution away from tennis and toward other things in her life, including her business and her family and possibly having another child. She played in the U.S. Open this year at 40 and went three rounds deep before she was eliminated. We wanted to talk about her influence, her legacy. And I just want to dive right in. Soraya, what have you been thinking about most when it comes to this transition in her career?
MCDONALD: You know, the thing that I’ve been coming back to repeatedly is just – I’m so proud of her. I’m proud of her for making this decision for herself and for realizing that she’s more than just tennis, you know? That’s not the only interesting thing about her. She has a right to just, like, enjoy every part of her life. She’s extremely competitive. She hates to lose. And I know that she has been staring at that number 24 and wanting to leapfrog over Margaret Court. And if ever there was a person who makes you want to leapfrog, it’s Serena Williams. You just want her to have that 24, even though she doesn’t need it, even though, as she said after her second-round win when she knocked off the No. 2 player in the world, I have nothing left to prove. You know, I have nothing to lose. And that’s absolutely right. And that is what I think about when I think about her, you know, evolving away from tennis.
She’s given the world so much, both as an athlete, as a celebrity, as someone, you know, who’s very publicly struggled with her own, like, maternal health issues when she gave birth to Olympia, you know, and basically sort of puts a face on this kind of enormous story that you guys at NPR did in concert with ProPublica, right? Like, she is sort of the person that you can envision as you’re thinking about sort of this broader story of Black maternal mortality and infant mortality and the discrepancies that we have in this country. So she’s incredibly, you know, meaningful. And, you know, the other thing that I said after she finished was, you know, she’s got at least another 10 Vogue covers in her, if not more. As sad as I am that I won’t get to see her play because it really is just one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed, you know, IRL, I’m just really happy for her.
HOLMES: Yeah. Gene, what do you think?
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that a lot of athletes talk about is just – you know, so there’s this weird thing happens in your athletic career when you’re, like, between 20 and 32, when you basically are at full command of all your powers, right? You are as strong as you’re going to be. You’re as fast as you’re going to be. And you also have enough tennis or boxing or basketball, whatever it is under your belt to be able to – like, to have the wiles to sort of just outsmart people. And you can just outrun and outjump them. And it also coincides with the part of life when people start to think about just, like, the other stuff they would rather be doing, right?
DEMBY: Like, it’s the first time in their lives when you can’t be sort of monomaniacal about the sport you play. I’ve heard so many NBA players talk about how kind of it was a relief not to be voted into the All-Star Game because that’s eight days in the middle of the season where you can, like, take your kids to Disney World, right?
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.
DEMBY: It’s, like, you actually just not on the clock. And suddenly, people just have, like, other priorities, like – and Serena Williams has been a professional tennis player for 25 years. That’s a bananas thing to sort of try to wrap your mind around. And to Soraya’s point, like, she has nothing left to prove. And so one of the things that I kept thinking about was, like, OK, she is starting a family. She’s married, right? Like, she’s won everything several times, right?
DEMBY: Like, no one thinks that because she didn’t surpass Margaret Court with the Grand Slam count – nobody thinks that she’s not the greatest player of all time, right? So, like…
MCDONALD: Two Serena Slams.
DEMBY: I mean, like, so what are you getting up in the morning to do, right? Like – and it’s just, like, the grind of, you know, spending all your offseasons, like, adding tiny wrinkles to your game, right? Or just recuperating from the strain – you know, by the time you’re 40, you have all these miles and minutes on your legs.
HOLMES: I sometimes think that to have this level of achievement in anything – but maybe especially sports because of the crossover of the physical and the mental – that has to be the most important thing in your life.
HOLMES: And I’m sure there are people who would say that’s not always true. There are exceptions. But I feel like, to a great degree, that has to be the most important thing in your life. And I think it’s clear that that is not the most important thing in her life anymore. And that seems normal to me. But it made me think about Naomi Osaka, the stuff with Simone Biles and, recently, you know, athletes talking about mental health. And it made me think about how pleased I am that there are more athletes who are like, look, this is not the only thing I’m ever going to do, even if it’s the only thing I ever do that you pay attention to. I’m not going to cease to exist when I’m 35, even if you never think about me again…
HOLMES: …So I have to make sure that I don’t injure myself to a degree that’s going to really limit me.
DEMBY: The margins get so much finer as you get older – right? – like, because you can’t move the same way, right? Like, trying to eke out those edges is just so much harder to do. And so you think about someone like Serena Williams, who – you know, the tennis season is grueling, right? Like, the Australian Open is in – what? – like, the early spring? The U.S. Open is, you know, basically the turn of the season in the fall. It’s, like, OK, so you have a couple of months of recovery, and you spend all that time, like, doing rehab and, like, trying to like – to what end, right?
MCDONALD: And then you’re still expected to play on the WTA circuit.
DEMBY: Exactly, right? So you have this – all the other non-Slam events that are happening that you have to, like, still – you know, and Serena Williams is not one of those players who has to, like, basically, eke out a living. She’s obviously made a ton of money. But also, you sort of think about her career, right? Like, we all know the story. You know, the rugged courts of Compton, Calif. they’re…
HOLMES: Right. Sure, sure.
DEMBY: …Bringing it up all the time, right? She has to climb this mountain, right? But by the 2010s, she is the mountain, right?
HOLMES: Right. Right, right, right.
DEMBY: I mean, it’s like – yeah. She becomes this sort of, like, ridiculous, like, final boss character for everybody, right?
DEMBY: It’s funny, like, 2015, she’s going for the Grand Slam of the calendar year. She plays this Italian woman named Roberta Vinci, who was unseeded – right? – who was unseeded and beat Serena Williams in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. And, like, everyone was, like, sort of dispirited for Serena Williams. It was like, I’m sorry. This other woman who beat Serena Williams looked like, you know, she beat the most unstoppable player on the planet…
DEMBY: …From, like, out of nowhere. But, like, no one’s going to tell her story because Serena took up all the oxygen.
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
DEMBY: You know, she’s, like, such a big celebrity, and…
DEMBY: …Everyone was rooting for her.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I saw a lot of that around the – the match that I watched almost all of was Serena’s second match this year. And, like, the entire crowd – and rightfully so – is pulling for her, is excited about her. They howl with joy every time she does anything. They less awesomely cheer for double faults by the other player…
HOLMES: …And I’m sitting there thinking, like, this is all going exactly as it should, given her accomplishments. But I was like, I can’t imagine what it must be like to play her in that event, where not only is she so incredibly beloved, but also everybody knows that she’s considering retiring. So it’s like they all think they’re watching her for the last time. Like, it’s so common in sports, where, even as you root for your own team, you can be like, oh, and I wouldn’t want to be that guy.
MCDONALD: Oh, yeah. So even Monday – right? – her first-round match – I got home probably close to midnight, and I was just so, like, buzzed with all of that energy. I couldn’t even fall asleep till, like, 3 a.m.
MCDONALD: It’s so intense. And then Wednesday, when she’s playing Anett – I mean, that one, I think, was just fun. Like, you could just see that she was just having, like, a great time. And that was really nice to see because everyone brings their best game against her. There is no slouching in order to have at least, like, just a half a percentage of a chance against her. I think you could even see that on Friday in her second match against Ajla, where they’re sort of evenly matched, and you can see how they’re kind of feeling each other out. And then the second one, Serena goes up, like, 4-0, like, so fast.
MCDONALD: She gets really close, and she can feel it, and you can feel her feeling it. And then something happens, and that was the opportunity. That’s all Ajla needed to sneak back in there and, game by game, just kind of, like, notch away at that lead.
HOLMES: Yeah. Again, it’s those margins shrinking, where everything gets harder. You have more vulnerabilities. I do want to ask you, Soraya. You talked about Vogue covers. I want to talk about how you feel about her legacy in terms of being kind of a sports icon, but also just an icon icon.
HOLMES: You know what I mean?
MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, obviously, you know, she’s done a ton of Vogue covers, but my favorite one is actually a Harper’s Bazaar cover that she did after losing to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 U.S. Open, where she’s – you know, she addresses Naomi Osaka, like, directly. But literally, the cover of that issue – she’s – everything she’s wearing is gold. She’s unretouched, and her ass is out. Like, it’s just a wonderful message…
MCDONALD: …To encode in a photograph, but also have it be sort of, like, celebratory of yourself. Truly, you look at that cover, and it is literally Serena Williams telling you that you can kiss her Black ass. And this brings me, actually, to something that I don’t necessarily think I’ve seen a whole lot of people articulate when it comes down to the sort of endurance that Serena has had to have over the course of her career. And that is that competing in a sport like professional tennis for 25 years, there’s just an institutional, structural whiteness about this sport that you cannot get away from and that imposes itself, you know? I remember feeling it the first time I covered a U.S. Open. Like, it was something I had to acclimate myself to, basically. And then, you know, when I covered her and Naomi at the Australian Open, that was another experience where I’m in the media center and I have people come up to me and ask, oh, are you here with Serena? Are you here with the Williams sisters? Are you related to them…
DEMBY: They thought you were with them?
MCDONALD: …Because I’m, like, the only Black woman in the media center at the Australian Open.
MCDONALD: There’s this underlying drone – right? – that’s always there, that’s always you’re not supposed to be here, that’s always you’re not good enough. No matter what you do, you’ll never quite fit, right? It’s Fuzzy Zoeller making a fried chicken joke at Tiger Woods’ expense. That is the environment. And she has been dealing with that for 25 years…
MCDONALD: …Because, like, we can never forget what happened at Indian Wells…
DEMBY: I was just looking it up.
MCDONALD: …When literally, you have her father, who takes his daughters to Indian Wells and has someone in the crowd telling him if it was ’75, we’d skin you alive. Like, this is not hypothetical violence because he’s lived through it. And he is also watching his daughters be subjected to this questioning, be subjected to this scrutiny that no one else, you know, who is a contemporary of theirs is getting.
DEMBY: And you think about, like, at Indian Wells, when – the sort of, like, priority on decorum, right, you know? You always hear – the U.S. Open, you hear the…
DEMBY: …(Shushing) Please, please, telling people – like, at Indian Wells, during that match, she’s getting booed – like, booed, which is, like, something that doesn’t happen in tennis, right? Like, she’s getting booed that whole time, right? It’s a really, really ugly incident. And both she and her sister, like, stayed away from Indian Wells for a long time because of it. And, yes, like, to Soraya’s point, that has been, like, a under – one of the undercurrents of her careers. Like, she is the most famous Black woman athlete in the world, and this sport that is institutionally white. And also, I think is important to talk about the way she sort of terraformed the sport. Like, you know what I mean? Like, I mean, if you look at the – both, like, the U.S. women’s side, like, you know, just how many, like, Top 50 women players are U.S. players in part because they, like, built their games to, like, go up against Serena Williams, right?
HOLMES: Right. Right.
DEMBY: Like, you think about Coco. You think about Sloane Stephens, these Black women, and Naomi Osaka, who is not Americans, she’s Japanese, but, like, has talked about, like, Serena Williams being the sort of – like, the template for a lot of stuff they do.
MCDONALD: She was the bar.
DEMBY: Right? Exactly.
DEMBY: Like, the sport is – I don’t want to use, like, this gross language, but it was, like – it was undercapitalized as it pertains to, like, Black folks, right?
DEMBY: Like, the fact that Serena Williams could go to a janky court in Compton and play tells you a little bit about, like, how ubiquitous courts are, right?
DEMBY: It’s like they’re everywhere, right? And so this super-white sport – like, she could go down the street…
DEMBY: …And play at this court even if it wasn’t the greatest court, right?
DEMBY: And it’s, like, one of the reasons that she and her sister figure so, like, predominantly in the explosion of tennis’ popularity in the United States in a way that, like, Tiger Woods has not had the same sort of downstream effects…
DEMBY: …For golf – right? – in terms of making more people of color interested in golf, because there’s higher bars to entry.
HOLMES: It makes it really clear that the closed nature of tennis was manufactured and intentional. I mean, it’s always manufactured and intentional. It is with golf, too, in different ways.
HOLMES: But it’s manufactured and intentional in a different way…
HOLMES: …Because she has been able to accomplish so much for the entire sport. It’s so interesting to me because, you know, I think, when they were in the Oscar campaign season and Jane Campion said that weird thing to her and Venus…
DEMBY: That was this year. It’s bananas.
HOLMES: I appreciate everything that you do, but you don’t have to go up against the men like I do. And then it was sort of chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. And of course, people were horrified. But people also kind of noted, oh, you know, they didn’t look that vexed or whatever. And I was like, yeah, this is the time you saw someone say something like that to her.
HOLMES: How many times do you think she’s experienced someone saying something…
MCDONALD: Oh, yes.
HOLMES: …That bad or worse? As Soraya was saying, for 25-plus years, she’s been…
MCDONALD: She – exactly. People have been saying…
DEMBY: She’s been Serena Williams her whole life. Yeah, exactly.
HOLMES: I mean, she’s been around – yeah.
MCDONALD: I was just going to say, you know, because there has been this tension inherently with the Williams’, you know, existing within this world, that has also led to other innovations, you know, just besides the level of gameplay in the women’s side. You know, part of the reason why we have the hawk-eye cameras now – right? – that…
DEMBY: Which is amazing.
MCDONALD: …For line calls is because the officiating of her matches was not objective.
HOLMES: I did not know that, but I am not surprised.
DEMBY: Like, one of the things that’s so fascinating about people like Serena Williams or Roger Federer or Cristiano Ronaldo or, like, LeBron James is, like, when someone’s played as long as they have, like, you get to sort of see this evolution of their career. Like, there’s the phenom phase, and then there’s the sort of, like, oh, this person is basically…
HOLMES: The superstar phase.
DEMBY: …Super demigod phase, right?
DEMBY: And then there’s this sort of, like, long swan song.
DEMBY: You know, one of the things that’s so fascinating about her deciding – ’cause she basically said, like, after Wimbledon, like, you know, it’s a wrap. Like, after – like, she – there wasn’t a long lead-up, right? And so it’s interesting watching how people navigate that part of this sunsetting in their careers.
DEMBY: Some people tell people far in advance so they can have the whole valedictory, right? She clearly was, like, not interested that. But, like, there’s a question of, like, about when you step away, right? Like, I think her last Grand Slam win was 2017 – something like that. It’s been a minute. She walked away after her last Slam – like, that would be the enduring image of Serena Williams, right? But trying to figure out when it’s over is this very complicated calculus.
DEMBY: And it’s, like, very individual.
HOLMES: I mean, I think there are genuinely people who have really different wants in that regard. There are people who want to play as long as they can possibly play, some of which can be economic, you know?
HOLMES: And there are other people who, once they’ve had a taste of being seen as really strong and awesome, really dread being seen as…
DEMBY: As something else.
HOLMES: …dropping off. It’s been interesting to see her navigate that.
MCDONALD: Yeah. And, you know, the thing is is that that is also in part a gift from Richard – was that he insisted that they both be, like, well-rounded, that they go to school, that they have other interests outside of tennis.
MCDONALD: You know, ’cause part of what you see in the junior circuit is that you have a bunch of kids who are clearly, like, super talented and get burned out.
MCDONALD: You know, Serena is kind of the opposite of that because she’s been doing it so long now, nobody even brings up the fact that, like, when the U.S. Open comes around, she’s also looking at sketches because she’s participating in Fashion Week. She’s been multitasking for so long, like, that’s just the normal thing for her, you know?
MCDONALD: It’s not even like, oh, her attention’s split.
HOLMES: She’s a VC now.
MCDONALD: Oh, yeah.
DEMBY: She used to get criticized a lot for it, too, right? It was the whole, like, she’s not sufficiently dedicated to tennis, right? She has all these other extracurricular interests. She took big chunks of time off from her career – right? – to do other stuff. And just, like – she was just like, I want to do me for a while, right?
MCDONALD: Listen (laughter).
DEMBY: And how could you blame her? Like, if I would fly and had $30 million in my pocket, I’ll – you know what I’m saying?
HOLMES: I was going to say (laughter).
DEMBY: Like, why would I – it’s one of those weird things where, like, being a professional athlete, there’s a level of masochism in that lifestyle that seems…
DEMBY: …I remember a couple years ago when Kevin Durant won the NBA championship with the Warriors, and people were clowning him because he, like, didn’t know how to handle the wine. Like, he was drinking the wine – like, the champagne in a weird way. And people started clowning him. He’s like, man, do you know how long it is – like, how long I go between drinking of any kind? Like, how long – like, how demanding – physically demanding this is? Like, I go eight or nine months at a time without being able to do these things that y’all do. You know what I mean? Like…
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think there are people who assume that being an athlete at that level, if you just continue, it just kind of does itself.
HOLMES: Like, you’re just continuing to be the person you are. And they take such offense when people step away. It makes sense to me.
HOLMES: It makes sense to me.
DEMBY: You think about sort of Serena Williams was coming up in a really, really inhospitable media environment…
HOLMES: Oh, God.
DEMBY: …And that was before social media, right? Like, so now it seems – just to think about the sort of – you look at someone like Coco Gauff, who is, I think, now 18 and is amazing, right? And she’s, like, only, like, sort of scratched the surface of what she can be. But also, like, you can imagine her having, like, a very different calculus about, like, OK, but do I want to do this for 20 years so I get…
DEMBY: …Within spitting distance of Serena’s records, right? Like, I mean, and it just seems like it’s easy to say that when you’re 18.
MCDONALD: And that’s also part of her legacy.
HOLMES: Exactly. That’s what I was just thinking. Yeah.
MCDONALD: You know, the way that she and Venus – and Venus in particular really, like, protected her and took care of her. Like, you can see that dynamic even happening between Naomi and Coco when they played – I want to say – what? – 2019. Coco loses and, at the U.S. Open, you have this moment where Naomi is saying, you know, please stick around and do the on-court interview with me ’cause I know how it feels to lose and then have to go do press. There is an understanding there of the commonality of the experiences they share. And the Williams sisters have really sort of led in modeling, you know, like, how to take care of each other.
HOLMES: If you can convince young, elite athletes that you are allowed to take your foot off the gas, that is an incredibly valuable thing to model. Now, not everybody can model that and also model being the best in your sport ever, ever, ever, ever.
DEMBY: Right, exactly.
HOLMES: But if you can model that for young, elite athletes, that’s a big, big deal. And plenty of people play plenty of professional sports past 40, but it was tremendously fun to watch her.
DEMBY: Tennis doesn’t get a lot of moments like that, where it’s like this is a cultural moment, where everyone’s eyes are fixated on this. You saw all the ESPN anchors talking about, like, we’re at the center of the sports universe right now, and we’re at Arthur Ashe watching this.
HOLMES: Right, right.
MCDONALD: I mean, she really is peerless in tennis.
HOLMES: Well, we could obviously talk about Serena Williams all day, but we want to know what you think about Serena Williams. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Soraya Nadia McDonald, Gene Demby, thank you so much for being here.
DEMBY: Appreciate you, Linda.
MCDONALD: Thank you. This was such a pleasure.
HOLMES: This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music, which you are bouncing tennis balls to right now. I’m Linda Holmes, and we’ll see you all tomorrow.
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