When to say when
This is not a tennis eulogy for Serena Williams. That will only come from the 40-year-old Williams herself when she decides to put down her racket for the last time, at least competitively. That may happen this year, or next, or at some undetermined time in the future. The only thing we do know right now is that we will not see the greatest women’s tennis player in history any further at Wimbledon after she lost her opening round match to Harmony Tan in three sets. Tan is currently ranked 115th in the world and was playing in her first open draw in tournament. Williams was playing her first match in almost exactly a year, when she retired from last year’s opening round match at Wimbledon with an injury, one that kept her sidelined for the remainder of the year. Which also means that Williams still has 23 singles wins at tennis majors, still one short of Margaret Court’s longstanding record of 24. It was once assumed Serena would shatter that record and replace it with a number essentially out of the mere perception of future pros. Increasingly, it seems more likely that finish line may never come. And remember, we said the same thing about Tiger Woods a few years ago. If nothing else, it should be a reminder of just how hard it is to win one major, be it the 5th or 24th.
Before Serena has so much as left the court, the questions began. Is this it? Will she retire? Can she still win? To her credit, Williams handled the situation like a pro, and at least alluded to the idea that she’d like to play at the US Open. After that who knows. She also talked in detail about the match, how she lost control and fatigued, and how Tan took over. That must be humbling for someone who throughout the vast majority of her career would have likely dispensed with Tan in perfunctory straight sets. That is part of the challenge of an aging athlete – completing with futility against opponents who would have once been clearly inferior. That is a true understanding of mortality. To know who you are compared to who you once had been.
Serena Williams isn’t the only legendary athlete who’s taking something of a last lap. On the track, American sprinter Alyson Felix has just finished the US Track and Field Championships in Oregon, where she failed to qualify for the World Championships in an individual event – although she will likely go for a relay. Felix is the world’s most decorated Olympic sprinter, having won 11 medals competing in five Olympic Games. This is her final year, a victory lap, one where she admittedly runs slower than in years prior, where she was nearly unstoppable in the 200 or 400. So now instead of winning a national title, she takes joy in simply making the event’s final – which she did last week in Eugene. Unlike Serena, Alyson Felix has a plan to exit the sport, one admittedly is unkind to even the smallest signs of aging. There are no tricks one can play against the calculus of a stop watch.
In both of these cases, two of the greatest athletes in American and world history, both could have easily walked away from their sports when they stopped winning. That’s the nature of individual sports. There’s no team to carry you, no bench to sit on. LeBron James can win a title without being the best in the world. Neither Williams nor Felix can say the same. Yet both have decided to keep on going, still elite but hardly the best, and both considerably short of their peaks. And both continuing through the questions and comments about when.
I’ve never been one to say when the right time to retire for any athlete or pretty much anyone, except perhaps a pilot or surgeon. As long as someone can compete, and there’s a market for their services, play as long as you’d like. I also imagine the decision is less of the body and more of the mind. It’s not simply that you can’t do what you used to. It’s that you know you can’t.
I imagine that’s the conversation Serena Williams is having with herself. Knowing she was once the greatest to ever take to the court – grass, clay, or otherwise. I imagine she’s considering when she’s had enough, and perhaps whether 23 will be good enough. Then, and only then, will she write her tennis eulogy.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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