1998. That was the year Serena Williams made her Wimbledon debut at the age of 17. Twenty-four years later the seven-time Wimbledon singles champion is still competing, but it’s clear even to her that the end is near. Williams lost a tough three-set match in round one at the All England Club on Tuesday to Frenchwoman Harmony Tan 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7).
The match lasted over three hours.
At times you saw the brilliance from Williams that makes her the undisputed GOAT with 23 Grand Glam singles victories. At other times you saw the collective wear and tear on a body that has been playing professional tennis for 27 years.
Williams has never addressed retirement questions directly. She’s either changed the subject or simply refused to answer. When you are as great as she is, there is a defiance that is embedded within you. Makes sense when you realize the greatest player of all-time didn’t grow up on the country club and elite junior tennis circuit, but honed her skills on the public courts in Compton, California.
Elite skill, a tactical tennis mind, a fighting spirit and defiance are what define Williams as a tennis player. But after Tuesday’s loss she was as close to admitting she can’t play forever as she’s ever been.
“Today I gave all I could do, you know, today,” a dejected Williams told a packed room of reporters after the match. “Maybe tomorrow I could have gave more. Maybe a week ago I could have gave more. But today was what I could do. At some point, you have to be able to be OK with that. And that’s all I can do. I can’t change time or anything, so, that’s all I could do on this particular day.”
It’s the “at some point, you have to be able to be OK with that” line that stands out. Williams is talking to herself as much as she’s answering the reporter’s question.
When you’ve accomplished as much as Williams has in her illustrious career and are the greatest ever it’s hard to accept certain things. The fact that she is Serena and has always defied the odds is her proof of concept.
She’s won majors while pregnant, unseeded, coming off injuries and she’s been doing it for decades. She seems superhuman, but she isn’t. The one opponent the GOATs have yet to master is time. It gets everyone eventually.
As an athlete ages it isn’t that they can’t be great any longer. It’s that the moments of greatness happen less often and are replaced by mediocre or substandard play. Though Williams has fought time off far better than most, she knows the end is near.
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” Williams said after the loss. “Like, I don’t know. I feel like, you know, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up.”
That’s doubt. Something the great ones fight to never give in to. But Williams is in a space right now that only a handful of athletes in the history of sports can understand.
The best to ever do it wrestling with the fact that maybe she no longer can.