NEW YORK — On the grounds at Wimbledon years ago, tennis was once described to me as “boxing without the punches.” The game may be more associated with the upper class and its country clubs, strawberries and cream and tea socials, but the analogy is nevertheless true: With the exception of boxing, there is no other sport as viscerally clear and unsentimental about victory and defeat. Two fighters. No help. No timeouts. No teammates. One winner.
Since Serena Williams’ announcement in Vogue earlier this month that she will be retiring from tennis following the US Open — after 27 years, 23 singles majors, 14 in doubles, two more in mixed doubles, and, for good measure four Olympic gold medals — the air around her has been awash in nothing but sentiment. Nearly 30 years a professional, Williams represents the individual as dynasty, spanning six presidents, playing in parts of four decades. For her fans who were there from the start, her time, from braces to baby, has been theirs, time and age creating nostalgia and reflection for her and themselves. Her sponsors (remember Serena, the Puma years), the kits (the catsuits, 2002 Puma and the 2018 Nike) and the looks (the beads, the blonde) remind her followers not only of Serena’s rivalries (Hingis, Hingis, Hingis!) and victories (start 1-2 lifetime vs. Sharapova, finish 20-2), but where they were in their individual lives at the time, who they were as people and what they would become over the next quarter century. Like a living calendar, she has been their constant.
For the past three weeks since her announcement, Serena has been the story in tennis, and now the US Open is here. She will open the tournament’s Monday night session against 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro. Leading up to the moment has been ritual — the on-court ceremony in Toronto, the testimony from peers and competitors, the gracious and natural language surrounding her and her sport, the inevitable passing of the torch.
There are the watchers, and there are the doers. The watchers revel in the customs of this narrative: Williams, the great champion making her last stand at her home major, a tournament she has won six times. The Open was where she won her first major, 23 years ago, in 1999. The watchers look to the future, at the teen sensation Coco Gauff, perhaps, and see the lineage, as they did when Naomi Osaka beat Serena in the tense, uncomfortable 2018 US Open final. They see the elegiac poetry of time.
For the doer, especially the fighter that is Serena Williams, there is no poetry. Ritual asks that the champion, the lion in winter but still a lion, play along. But passing the torch — willfully leaving the throne — goes against every instinct of the fighter’s nature and that of their prospective successors, who want to be handed nothing. The poetry of transition is a fairy tale. That’s for the watchers, for those who live and die and cheer in support. In sports, there is no passing of the torch, for while her leave from the sport may be voluntary, Serena’s viselike grip on excellence is not. She is currently ranked 410th in the world. She has played four matches this year, and won but once, beating lucky loser Nuria Parrizas-Diaz, ranked 57th on tour. Over the past two years, she’s lost to an opponent ranked 100 or worse three times, and technically a fourth when she withdrew with injury in the second round of the 2020 French Open. It’s been seven years, 2015, since Serena played 10 tournaments in a year.
At Wimbledon, a tournament she has won seven times, she lost in the first round to Harmony Tan, the world No. 115. Against Top 15 players Belinda Bencic in the first round at Toronto and Emma Raducanu in the first round at Cincinnati, she did not win a set. Raducanu took the final seven games of the match in a 6-4, 6-0 destruction. Serena is not choosing her successor, as the comforting ritualistic language suggests. She is an underdog. The torch is not being passed. The torch is being taken, and it is out of her control.
When the Vogue article appeared, in addition to the tears and emotion of Serena fans, one recurring thought relayed to me by many of her diehards was the utter sadness of watching Serena take a beating at the hands of players she once dusted in her sleep, who had no business victoriously shaking hands with her at the net. The prospect of witnessing their greatest champion losing to average and perhaps below average players was too much to consider, and certainly hard to watch.
Tennis is boxing without the punches. It was in one of these exchanges I thought back to two dates: Oct. 2, 1980, and June 10, 2016. The former was the night Larry Holmes destroyed Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas; the latter, in Louisville, at Ali’s funeral. It was the penultimate fight of Ali’s career, and it was sad carnage. Early in his career, Holmes had been Ali’s sparring partner. He trained with Ali before what might have been Ali’s greatest triumph, defeating George Foreman in Zaire, 1974, the famed Rumble in the Jungle.
There was no passing of the torch from the master to protégé that night. Holmes beat Ali senseless. Ali was battered, mercilessly, by his younger charge, and Holmes wept at fulfilling the ruthlessness of his professional responsibility, the same way he would weep at the funeral 36 years later. Ali was his idol. His hero. There was no ceremony in this. Ali’s removal from the throne was not pretty. It was not romantic. It was not ritualistic, where each of the combatants plays a role and each will emerge with their dignity, where each emerges better. It was horribly sad. The final moment of Ali’s career, nearly 18 months later in the Bahamas, was worse. When Trevor Berbick decimated what was left professionally of The Greatest, it was a relief. It was not a passing of the torch. It was a mercy.
The watchers need ritual, and its language of seamless, gracious and willing continuum. The passing of the torch implies cooperation and acceptance, a mutual agreement that one’s time has passed. The watchers need this because for them, the viewer, this defeat is actually part of their continuing journey, for there will be other matches in the future. Where the language collapses is in the idea that torch-passing requires players to be in on the ritual, comfortable with the eventual abdication of their throne. This narrative runs counter to the natural order of sports, and in this instance, the watchers want it both ways: to celebrate the obdurate, championship mettle, to watch them fight to the end as they always have, but then also to surrender their position to the future. It does not work, and that is why the true final stage of the ritual is being beaten, often badly. Outside of winning a championship and leaving the stage, there is no third way.
In her Vogue essay, Serena acknowledged being completely uncomfortable with her role in this drama. She does not even want to use the word “retirement,” even though from her tennis life, it is precisely what she will soon do. She is not retiring, she says. She prefers the term “evolving.”
Certainly, her talent level is still so high that a dedicated Serena could still be a Top 40 player, maybe even better — except that Serena Williams plays to win tournaments. All of them. She does not step on the court expecting to lose, to be average, or to get to the second week of a major and hope for the best. She does not appear to be willing to suffer defeat as her sister Venus, the once-great, seven-time major champion who now routinely loses to players who will never accomplish an eighth of what she did at her beautiful best.
My first year covering baseball full-time was 1998. Serena was 16 years old. It was a year before she would beat the great Steffi Graf, a year before she would win her first major. That year, I was covering the Oakland A’s for the San Jose Mercury News. The left fielder was the great Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, headed directly to the Hall of Fame. Rickey wasn’t great anymore. Pitchers who had no chance against him back in the day when he was invincible were blowing fastballs by him now — but it was stunning to watch how much fire he had to compete, even diminished. Rickey’s manager, Art Howe, watched and knew the truth: Rickey couldn’t play anymore. He’d been there.
“I was never a superstar like Rickey, but I played till I was 39. The reflexes start to go, and you yourself, you’re the only one who really knows how much you’re slipping,” Howe told me. “I’d foul a ball off and say, ‘Man, you shoulda killed that. What’s wrong with you?’ It was frustrating more than anything else. In a way it makes it easier to say goodbye. You know you’re not yourself.”
And it is here where this phenomenon of winning matches that were once never in doubt, or losing matches once unthinkable, can be necessary, useful, positive, confirming. In a way, these final matches in this final fortnight are an exercise of grief and healing — for both Williams and her diehards. She is creating closure for herself by playing, by knowing that the flashes of her brilliance and belief in herself, produce questions that can be answered only by stepping onto the court and either basking in or enduring the results. They are the uncomfortable layers of ritual. Time awaits them all — Nadal and Djokovic, Serena and Federer. Barring a future return, the great eight-time champion Roger Federer’s last match at Wimbledon ended with Federer, weeks from his 40th birthday, suffering a straight-sets loss to Hubert Hurkacz, the third set 6-0.
The current reign of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer on the ATP tour with their 63 combined majors has stood (and in the case of Djokovic and Nadal, still stand) at the mountaintop because no one has pushed them off. After her pregnancy, Serena immediately returned and made four major finals, but the next generation did its job. The Osakas, Andreescus, Kerbers and Haleps stepped on court and beat her. It’s the only way. There is no ambiguity by this stage, knowing that she may no longer be able to bend the tennis world to her will, but also knowing that new challenges await.
For her legions, they may flinch that the days of routinely crushing the Harmony Tans of the world are over, or hurt for her that the old dominance is gone, and today might not be enough to overcome the Andreescus and Osakas and Raducanus. But by choosing to announce her retirement, at her moment, she is providing her fans the service so many desperately craved of seeing her once again, on the stage competing to win — not willfully surrendering a stage that has been hers for more than a quarter century.
There is, and there will always remain, an enormous gap between the watchers — those who emphasize narrative and story and poetry — and the doers, those who live the story and go out and do the fighting. Torch-passing is a myth. At this stage in the journey, there is only defeat, either at the hands of younger, better opponents or time, which is the ruthless and unrelenting job. Serena was once at the other end of this ruthless ritual, sending the Grafs, and Hingises and Davenports into their next chapters. Even a magical, unlikely win at Flushing Meadows comes at the heavy cost of knowing there will be no more. At this stage as a professional athlete, the end never ceases to be an end while the tennis chapter remains. For Serena, who is already energetically throwing herself into the world of venture capitalism, fashion, business and expanding her family, she is not reaching the end. She is reaching the beginning.