"Her impact on my life is impossible to overstate, her blueprint mapping the way at every turn."
Earlier this month, Serena Williams fulfilled her promise of retirement — or in her words, "evolution away from tennis" — bowing out of the US Open in round three, to a devastated crowd of devoted fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium. In true Serena fashion, she went out breaking records — her final match made history for ESPN, drawing a record peak of almost seven million viewers.
On the face of it, Serena’s story is one of simplicity. A wildly talented player ascended to the very top of her sport, smashing several records in the process, cementing her position as the Greatest of All Time and finally exiting stage left to unanimous adoration. But on closer inspection, the legend of Serena is one of unlikely juxtapositions, inexorable trailblazing, and steely resilience.
Serena has always been so much more than just a tennis player. Through her stratospheric star power, she has transcended the world of sport, elevating herself to the position of multi-hyphenate pop culture icon. In her numerous roles as player, mother, entrepreneur and executive producer to name but a few, Serena means something different to everyone giving her an almost universal accessibility — but making it all the more difficult to say goodbye.
Her impact on my life is impossible to overstate, her blueprint mapping the way at every turn.
In my own life, Serena’s example has been a guiding light through vastly different personal milestones. As one of a handful of Black students at the U.K.’s elite University of Cambridge, I thought of Serena’s resolve and determination at a predominantly white Wimbledon, the manicured lawns of which were strikingly similar to those of a Cambridge college. Working in Brussels as a new graduate, I sought comfort from Serena’s impeccable handling of racially motivated abuse at the Indian Wells tennis tournament as I watched locals take to the streets in Blackface as part of national celebration. Her impact on my life is impossible to overstate, her blueprint mapping the way at every turn.
We can all take personal lessons from different parts of Serena’s journey. From her humble origins practicing on the courts of Compton to gracing the front row of the world’s most high-end catwalks, hers is a trajectory spanning the extremities of class, wealth, and sporting excellence resulting in both relatability and profound inspiration. Coupled with her navigation of at times hostile spaces as a Black woman, Serena’s array of achievements mean there’s almost no situation in which the mantra "What Would Serena Do?" isn’t of value, making her legacy indispensable.
To mark the end of her historic tennis career, InStyle spoke to women from all walks of life, including those who have worked with and played against her about Serena’s enduring influence on our lives.
Maneuvering Motherhood and Career
It’s said that "all good things must come to an end" but to some, this departure feels abrupt and premature, perhaps because Serena, 41 as of today, had yet to capture a historic 24th Grand Slam title — something which she has pursued relentlessly in recent years and that many believed her to still be capable of.
And Serena has admitted that her "evolution away from tennis" hasn’t been entirely up to her. As she detailed in her essay for Vogue announcing her retirement and during her recent appearance on her friend Meghan Markle’s podcast Archetypes, a large factor in her decision to step away was the recognition of her body’s limits as both a mother and athlete.
Spurred on by a desire to expand her family, Serena had to make a choice — one that she is acutely aware isn’t even a consideration for her male counterparts who, without the physical demands of childbirth, can play for much longer.
Even during her strongest moments as a tennis player, the constraints of motherhood have never been far behind. Serena’s 2017 Australian Open victory was a feat made all the more impressive by the knowledge that she won the tournament while pregnant, having only just learned about her pregnancy weeks earlier.
On Archetypes, Serena revealed that before a match at the 2018 French Open, she’d slept just 30 minutes after a trip to hospital with her injured daughter the night before. “I had a match the next day and that night, [Olympia] fell out of her highchair and broke her wrist. And she was on my watch. And I was just basically devastated. Like, I literally couldn't think. I felt so guilty,” Williams recalled, alluding to her feelings of guilt as a working mother — something that resonates with parents everywhere.
Olympic sprinter-turned-sports broadcaster Jeanette Kwakye, 39, posits that by just existing as a working mother, Serena changed the game for athletes and mothers. “It gave us permission, it didn’t have to be vocal, it just had to be visible. I’m going to assume there are so many different sides to this phenomenal woman and her longevity post-children is something to behold. We are incredibly lucky to witness that level of greatness,” she says.
Serena is also intent on finding practical ways to help working mothers, too. In 2020 she was revealed as a strategic advisor to Chicago based start-up The Mom Project, a platform which aims to eradicate biases against hiring mothers into the workforce.
As young Black girls from Compton, the ascendance of Venus and Serena to the upper echelons of the gilded world of tennis was astonishing. Before them, there had been just a handful of Black players with Grand Slam titles and most of them were treated poorly, falling victim to violent racism.
Althea Gibson was the first Black player to win the prestigious Wimbledon tournament in 1957. But instead of returning to a hero’s welcome in the U.S., she was subjected to fervent discrimination and was denied a room at every single hotel she tried in liberal Chicago — the setting of her next tournament.
The message was loud and clear, Black women would never be welcomed into the elite world of tennis, despite their athletic prowess. Hardly the backdrop for Serena to become one of the sport’s most recognizable ambassadors a mere six decades later — but that is exactly what she achieved, inspiring an entire generation of Black and biracial female athletes around the world.
Serena Williams was the woman who gave me, at 10 years old, license to see myself. With beads in her hair as a prominent Black female athlete on TV during the '90s, her visibility was exactly what I needed as a young Black female athlete.
One such athlete is former professional footballer, England, Chelsea, and Juventus forward Eniola Aluko, 35, who recently became the first sporting director of the women’s soccer franchise co-owned by Serena Williams, Angel City Football Club.
During an illustrious 21-year career, she reached the very highest level in her sport and credits Serena with instilling the necessary belief within her. “Serena Williams was the woman who gave me, at 10 years old, license to see myself. With beads in her hair as a prominent Black female athlete on TV during the '90s, her visibility was exactly what I needed as a young Black female athlete. For a little while I abandoned football to play tennis because of Serena,” Aluko passionately recalled to InStyle.
Fighting for recognition in the face of racially motivated dismissal is a plight familiar to Black women in all disciplines. British politician and member of Parliament Dawn Butler has become accustomed to it in her time. Just two years ago, she was forced to permanently shut her office building after bricks were hurled through the window in a racist attack. She, too, takes comfort from Serena’s superior method of overcoming racism.
What I love about Serena is her determination not to let anyone dim her light — and at almost every single interview someone tries... I use Serena’s smile and eye-roll as a booster shot to everyday micro-racism.
Butler tells InStyle, “What I love about Venus and especially Serena is her determination not to let anyone dim her light — and at almost every single interview someone tries.” Butler says she uses Serena’s imperturbable confidence as inspiration whilst negotiating Westminster’s predominantly white corridors of power. “I use Serena’s smile and eye-roll as a booster shot to everyday micro-racism,” she added.
Despite the lack of tangible examples before her, Serena leaves the tennis world a far more accommodating place for women of color than when she joined it, no doubt thanks to her fearless trailblazing. Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys are all examples of tennis’s increasingly diverse next generation, all of whom grew up watching Serena’s success.
It's been incredible for me, because I've watched her since I was a kid, and just to see her journey and have been impacted by all the cool stuff that she's done on and off the court, it's really cool. And she's opened so many doors.
Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka is perhaps the shining light of this new generation. The Japanese-Haitian-American star, whose striking serve speed and powerful winners are often compared to Serena, has even beaten Williams on three separate occasions, two of which during Grand Slams. Despite their rivalry on the court, Naomi has acknowledged the importance of Serena’s influence on her as well as her enduring legacy telling Tennis World magazine in October 2021, “I started playing because of her.”
Speaking about growing up observing her exploits, Osaka says, “I think it's been incredible for me because I've watched her since I was a kid, and just to see her journey and have been impacted by all the cool stuff that she's done on and off the court, it's really cool. And she's opened so many doors.”
In her heartfelt and deeply personal essay for Vogue teasing her retirement, Serena said that she hopes her defining legacy will be paving the way for female athletes. “I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court,” she wrote. “They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful.”
Modeling Success Off the Court
There’s a reason Serena is framing this next step in her life as an "evolution away from tennis" rather than a retirement. It’s because her career has always been about so much more than tennis. In many ways, a move away from tennis marks just the beginning of Serena’s hugely diverse career. Tennis great Billy Jean-King picked up on this in her tribute to Serena following a resounding first-round US Open victory. “Thank you for sharing your journey with every single one of us. And guess what? You’re just beginning,” she declared to thunderous applause.
After launching her first business venture, the self-titled S by Serena clothing line, in 2018, Williams has continued to add to her growing empire all whilst remaining dominant on the court. Today, her clothing line, the realization of a lifelong love of fashion kickstarted by her time studying design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, is a fully fledged brand, expanding with a children’s and summer collection. Serena Williams Jewelry, her first foray into the world of accessories, launched in 2019.
Outside of fashion, Serena’s venture capital firm, Serena Ventures — one of a tiny number of VC firms owned by Black women — raised $111 million earlier this year. Over the past decade, the company has steadily put money into dozens of successful companies, including Impossible Foods, Daily Harvest, and MasterClass, and, unsurprisingly, 78% of her portfolio is made up of companies started by women and people of color.
For soccer player Aluko, Serena’s off-court exploits had a direct impact on her own post-retirement career. “Serena was a key reason I joined Angel City FC as its first sporting director given her and Alexis Ohanian’s affiliation with the club. Serena gave me the license and inspiration to say yes and go for it,” she remembers. Now Serena’s example is lighting the way for the next stage in her career.
“Serena Ventures is the latest inspiration for me to move into ownership within sports” Aluko told InStyle.
In response to that ill-advised post-match question from Mary Joe Fernandez asking whether Serena had surprised herself with her own form at this year’s US Open, the 23-time Grand Slam champion simply replied, “No, I’m just Serena.”
It’s in being “just Serena” for over 20 years that she has inspired a generation, changed the face of professional sport, and provided us with lessons to last a lifetime. Although an athlete like Serena comes along once in a generation, the beauty of her multifaceted existence is that she will continue to serve us with "wow" moments, be it in the worlds of fashion, business, or sports. Only time will tell what’s coming next, but knowing Serena, it’s destined to be great.