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Conscious retirement

So if you, like me, haven’t yet purchased tickets to the US Open Tennis Tournament but plan to, you should pay close attention to what’s likely to be some significant market fluctuations in pricing. That’s not just because we’re moving closer to the first round. It’s because this may be the last opportunity to see one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport.

That, of course, is Serena Williams, who this week announced what could be construed as her retirement after the US Open. Specifically, she said that she would be evolving away from tennis, which sounds kind of like how celebrities say conscious uncoupling instead of divorce. She gave many reasons for her timing, relating to family, other life and career opportunities, and towards other things that are important to her. Clearly, Serena doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, as her career body of work stands up to anyone who’s played on any field or court. Of course, her non-traditional wording leaves something of an open door to return given the right circumstance. But then again, really anyone can unretire, regardless of how they exit. For clarification, please refer to Tom Brady.

Unless Serena finds a way to win the Open, which she isn’t predicted to do, she would retire with 23 major victories, one shy of the record held by Margaret Court, a number she was expected to pass years ago when she won her last major in 2017. In those five years, Serena has made it to four major finals, yet was unable to do what we all assumed a foregone conclusion. It’s a similar storyline to golfer Tiger Woods, who also never broke a record we long assumed was his. Such is the angst and uncertainty of sports. The ending is always unscripted. Regardless, whether Serena does somehow tie the record this September in Flushing Meadows or not, she will be rightfully be regarded as the greatest and most dominant woman to ever play the game. And while I understand the temptation to compare her dominance against her male counterparts – say, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal – I’ll refrain taking that bait. I’ve always seen such rankings as a fool’s errand, like comparing the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. In the end, Serena was simply spectacular.

Of course, many will consider Serena’s accomplishment in much broader context, widening the perception of who can excel in a historically privileged and white sport. Even with the challenges of access to tennis for the vast majority of Americans today, it’s no stretch to say that Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, have changed the sport of tennis like no one else in history – with all due respect to the great Arthur Ashe and Billy Jean King. And while Serena developed a massive and loyal fan base over time, very few athletes have had to endure the scrutiny and scorn that came her way. And in a sport that historically eats its young, particularly on the women’s side, Serena Williams managed to remain as strong off the court as she did on it. To retire near the top of the game at age 40 in a sport where athletes often peak at 20 isn’t simply notable. It’s nearly unimaginable.

For the next several days and weeks and months, people are going to try and contextualize Serena’s impact – through rankings, legacy, earnings, and any other way we quantify people. That’s understandable, given the nature of sports and legacy and numbers. In sports, if you can’t rank it, what’s the point. It is perhaps the most enduring afterlife of Michael Jordan – from that moment on, everything is on a list. And in short time, I’m sure we’ll have Serena’s documentary series, like Jordan and now Derek Jeter, that further cements her storyline.

For the time being, I’ll refrain from all that. Because in the end, sports and the athletes that play aren’t really about their historical ranking or how they compare to someone else after it’s over. It’s about what they do while it’s still happening. Which is while as long as Serena Williams is playing tennis, I’d rather see what’s she’s still capable of, and if she can somehow defy time and circumstance to get major number 24. That seems way more interesting than the retirement that comes after.

And if she does get to 24 this September, I wouldn’t be surprised if that evolution slowed down just a bit to the Australian Open this winter. Just don’t expect to find tickets.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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