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Williams Sisters, Roger Federer And Their Plans For Retirement

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Serena Williams is jumping into NFTs
Serena Williams is jumping into NFTs

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Serena Williams on retirement

On Tuesday, Serena Williams posted that she will “relish these next few weeks” before officially calling in a career in professional tennis.

In addition to all their glorious achievements on the center courts of the world, Roger Federer and the Williams sisters have pulled off an extraordinary feat: They have retired the idea of retirement in tennis.

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The “R” word has haunted and bedeviled tour players since forever. As players advanced deeper into their 30s, the life-altering decision of how and when to retire loomed and larger.

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“But thanks to this trio, the pressure to formally pull the plug in the manner of a 65-year old assembly-line worker or high school teacher has been defused. Granted, the three players are iconic overachievers, but they haven’t been exempt from the pressure to deal with the “R” word, either. They just declined to acknowledge its relevance.

Federer turns 41 today. Venus is already 42, while Serena can see her 40s coming down the pike, on September 26. Although all three are ranked in faraway territories—Federer is unranked; Venus is No. 1,556; Serena leads the pack at No. 407—largely because they have been out of action for most of the past year, all of them are committed to carrying on (with significant caveats), and their disproportionately large impact on the game will continue.

During an appearance in a ceremony at Wimbledon a few weeks ago, Federer said that he hoped to play at the All England Club “one more time,” suggesting that he will be around for at least another year. Out of action with a bad knee since Wimbledon 2021, Federer plans to make his official return to tennis in September at the Laver Cup, the exhibition event he founded. But his ambitions don’t end there, as his well-chronicled (via Instagram) rehab suggests.

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Venus Williams

Venus Williams

“I know Roger well enough to know that he still has the flame burning to compete,” Tony Godsick, Federer’s longtime agent and business partner recently said on Instagram. “His real motivation is to come back to compete on the ATP tour and sort of try to end his career, the way he wants to end it, healthy and successful and on his terms.”

Although Venus won just three matches in nine events last year, and just played her first singles match since last August at last week’s Citi Open, her hiatus seems more like a reset than a stealth retirement. When Venus got a look at the grass at Wimbledon during a busman’s holiday in London, she “got excited.” She entered the mixed doubles (with Jamie Murray) on an impulse. After they won a match, Venus told reporters that her joy at winning was “real,” and that she had “felt something in her heart.”

Venus remained guarded about her plans after losing in the second round of the mixed, but she warned, “You never know where I’ll pop up.” Within weeks, we knew: Venus accepted a wild card into the Citi Open, along with this week’s WTA 1000 event in Toronto, seemingly to prepare for another US Open bid.

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Serena also appears to be targeting the US Open, still hoping to bag that elusive, record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. Her prep work began in Toronto today, when she earned her first singles match win since the 2021 French Open, a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz.

Williams also lost a fiercely-contested first-round match to Harmony Tan at Wimbledon, after which a reporter asked if she was “okay” with that loss as her final memory from Wimbledon. She replied, “Obviously not. You know me. Definitely not.”

Serena Williams won her first singles match since the 2021 French Open on Monday in Toronto.

Serena Williams won her first singles match since the 2021 French Open on Monday in Toronto.

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No member of this august trio has used the “R” word except when prevailed upon—and why should they? Appreciation for doubles is on the upswing, and new events like Laver Cup (is there a “Williams Cup” in tennis’ near future?) offer elite players continued visibility. Promoters are experimenting with more age-friendly formats. All provide added incentive to remain in shape, to enjoy a far lengthier career arc. Other quality players surely will benefit from these developments.

The very word “retire” has always had nasty connotations in tennis for all but those players who have grown weary of the stress and strain of the profession (think Ash Barty, among others). But even for that disillusioned cohort, there is something unnatural about calling it quits at an age when they still have deep reserves of energy, and other gifted professionals are just hitting their strides. That’s one reason why so many players un-retire to give the game another whirl.

With nothing like an accepted “retirement age” in tennis, decisions about how, why, and when to retire are deeply personal, which is why players have pursued so many different paths to get there.

Andre Agassi was a broken down and beaten up at 36 when, immediately following his third-round US Open loss to No. 112-ranked Benjamin Becker in 2006, he declared, No más. Those who heard the pitch-perfect speech Agassi made to the full house in Arthur Ashe Stadium during his on-court interview that day witnessed one of the most gracious “retirement” moments in pro sports.

No member of this august trio has used the “R” word except when prevailed upon—and why should they? Appreciation for doubles is on the upswing, and new events like Laver Cup (is there a “Williams Cup” in tennis’ near future?) offer elite players continued visibility.

Contrast that tidy strike with the way Agassi’s career rival Pete Sampras left behind his career. Sampras was struggling in the summer of 2002, playing indifferently, growing ever angrier at having to deal with the “R” word over and over in media appearances. Deep down (as he explained to me in the autobiography, A Champion’s Mind,) Sampras had a nagging feeling that his work was unfinished—even though his ranking was down to No. 17 and he hadn’t won three matches at a tournament since the early spring.

But Sampras pulled off a magnificent victory over Agassi in the US Open final that year, securing a record 14th—and final—Grand Slam title. He made no mention of the “R” word, and left the door open to future play. But he never entered another tournament. Call it a “soft” retirement.

Among women, Chris Evert was 34 and without a tournament title in 1989 at the US Open. She had announced earlier in the year that she had no interest in sticking around tennis for love of the game. After allowing upstart Monica Seles just two games in the fourth round, Evert lost in the quarterfinals to Zina Garrison. Evert made no stirring, Agassi-esque speech. She went into a private office under the stands of Louis Armstrong Stadium for a brief cry and emerged to tell reporters, “The time is right.”

Steffi Graf also walked away from the game without fanfare a decade after Evert. Still just 30 and ranked No. 3, Graf felt that the thrill was gone. Like some others, she went on an extended farewell exhibition tour.

Kim Clijsters kept the idea of retiring from tennis alive while devaluing it to the point where it became almost meaningless. She retired from three times, most recently in April. Like divorce, retiring loses some of its sting the third or fourth time around.

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Even at 42, there is little to suggest that Venus Williams is done with the pro game.
Even at 42, there is little to suggest that Venus Williams is done with the pro game.

Most players, even very good ones, don’t have the luxury to debate the merits of a farewell tour, or need to worry about writing a memorable retirement speech. They play singles until declining rankings, injury or mental fatigue—or some combination thereof—gently nudges them aside and closes probably the most exciting chapter of their lives. You can hardly blame many of them for trying to hang on as long as they can. The process is often painful and never easy, but even journeymen and women have more options to extend their careers on, or around, the courts these days.

The surprising thing is that after all they have accomplished, neither the Williams sisters, nor Federer, seem eager to quit the game. You may never see them battling 16-year-olds in Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton, but are doing something amazing and paradigm-shifting. All three are presently older—by a lot, in some cases—than were any of the other players mentioned in this story when they stopped.

The value of longevity, and the elements that promote it, are evident. In turn, younger athletes have been recalibrating their ambitions and priorities. The long view is becoming accepted as the best view. The parallel histories of Tiger Woods and Tom Brady attest that this trend is larger than tennis. The “R” word is becoming increasingly irrelevant in tennis, and in the future it may disappear altogether.

Hammed Tajudeen is the Editor-In-Chief of Blaze Newz Nigeria, graduated from Osun State Polytechnic, Iree with Higher National Diploma (HND) in Mass Communication.

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