If you haven’t been paying attention the past 20 or so years to their greatness, their grace, their grit, well, that’s a you problem.
Because to have been even marginally interested in sports over the past two decades has meant getting to watch four of the greatest ever rack up championships, gold medals and legions of fans who dream of following them to glory.
On Tuesday, Serena Williams revealed in a first-person essay for Vogue magazine that she is retiring, or “evolving away from the game,” as she called it. The 40-year-old has been chasing her 24th Grand Slam title for years, ever since winning her 23rd while pregnant with her daughter Olympia at the 2017 Australian Open. She'll play her last tournament later this month at the U.S. Open.
Women who have inspired us to push a little harder, to speak a little louder, to fight a little longer.
Serena — it just doesn’t feel right to follow news writing style and call her by her last name — and her older sister Venus are one of the most incredible stories in American sports history. It’s well-known to many at this point but bears repeating for the sheer fairy-tale-ness of it: Their early days were spent in Compton, California with their parents Oracene Price and Richard Williams, and Williams developed a plan to start teaching his daughters tennis after seeing Virginia Ruzici win $20,000 for winning the 1978 French Open.
Two Black girls. From Compton. Coached by their novice father. Went on to dominate a sport that had long been the bastion of well-to-do white people in America, playing on perfectly maintained, and perfectly segregated, country club courts.
They faced resistance nearly every step of the way, from opponents, from media, from some fans. The beads on their braids were too much. Richard Williams was too brash. Their fashion choices weren’t proper. Serena in particular was too muscular, too powerful, too loud, too unapologetic, too ... everything. There was the alleged rivalry between Serena and lithe, blonde Russian Maria Sharapova, an utter farce of an idea given Sharapova was never Serena’s peer as a player, only as a pitchwoman.
On and on it went.
In their early years, Venus and Serena clung to each other as they endured the subtle and overt racism they encountered. In their later years, once their dominance was undeniable and they had changed the women’s game to demand more power, they became beloved, though still not by everyone. Since she became a mother, Serena also has become tennis’s grand dame, embracing younger players, like Naomi Osaka, who grew up idolizing her. She did this while still trying for that elusive 24th Slam, which would tie her with Margaret Court for most ever (Court played in the pre-Open era).
Of this Fab Four, it can be argued that Serena’s story is the most unlikely. It isn’t unusual to see a Black girl from Southern California go on to be a track star, as Felix did, or for young women from Miami and New York become basketball stars, like Fowles and Bird. It has, however, been frustrating, even to Fowles herself, to see the swan song of the four-time Olympian and arguably greatest center the women’s game has seen, take a backseat to Bird’s final games.
But the longevity. The accolades. The consistency. The willingness to become more than an athlete and a beacon for equality, for the rights of female athletes, mothers and people from marginalized communities; those are the things that take all four of these women from memorable to icon.
For some, it took longer to take that last step than it did the others. Serena has long been outspoken, about pay equity in tennis and beyond, and how she and her sister were treated and portrayed. Fowles too, while more low-key, has been the leader for years, especially of a Minnesota Lynx team that has been unapologetic about racial and social justice.
Bird was slower to come around, as was Felix. It was Bird who was credited with WNBA players’ advocacy in 2020 for then-Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, who was running to unseat Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta Dream co-owner who had campaigned against pretty much everything WNBA players are and stand for.
And Felix, who would race to unprecedented numbers of medals at the Summer Games and World Championships, didn’t find her voice until she was pregnant in 2018 and needed an emergency C-section. The ordeal moved her to shine a light on the Black maternal mortality crisis as well as the unfair treatment of sponsors like Nike, which historically had significantly cut pay for athletes who became pregnant or implicitly rushed them back to competition before they’d begin getting paychecks again.
Had any of them, or even all of them, stuck to their respective sports, we’d still have much to celebrate and lament that we’ll never get to see their greatness again.
But they didn’t. Serena changed the standard in tennis, Felix set a near-impossibly high bar for track and field success, Bird and Fowles are among the greatest team players we’ve ever seen. And that wasn’t enough for any of them.
They pushed themselves a little bit harder, spoke a little louder, fought a little harder.
And we are all the better that they did.