When Venus and Serena Retire, American Tennis Will Expire

There’s a line from an old Jay-Z song (the “Can’t Knock the Hustle” remix) that came to mind while writing this story. In the song there’s a line that mentions that “the only thing worse than getting old is not getting old,” which focuses on both mortality and the appreciation for a life well spent.

Venus Williams’ first round Wimbledon loss last week – on the heels of Serena Williams’ first round loss at the French Open last month – has again ignited talk that The Williams Sisters’ are coming to the end of their respective careers. In recent months there have been discussions about what happens to American tennis once they leave the game for good.

Women’s tennis in America may not have always been “Must See TV” in the 21st century, but certainly you had to acknowledge its existence. You couldn’t just walk around not knowing there were two American women on the scene exhibiting jaw-dropping displays of talent.  Even people who don’t follow the sport are aware of how dominate the Williams Sisters have been over the last decade, because they are omnipresent in magazines, commercials and popular culture. Venus with her multiple business ventures and Serena breaking the hearts of dudes coast to coast.

They didn’t just change the game; they changed everything en route to becoming all-time greats.  They’ve both had marvelous careers, combining to win 20 Grand Slams and becoming dominant worldwide brands.

There is a generation of people for which tennis in this country is defined by those two sisters from southern California. Names like Chris Evert and Jennifer Capriati are just dinner conversation pieces exclaimed by older siblings and parents, just names in a world full of names.  In this era, the term American tennis is really a synonym for the Williams Sisters.

They were American tennis’ only superstars of the past 10 years. And, unlike, say, Pete Sampras, their superstardom transcended tennis fans and crossed all racial, gender and generational boundaries.

As it goes with tribalism, this was especially evident in many Black communities where the reign of the Williams Sisters has signaled a golden age of sorts. Tennis courts, like most public venues were long closed to African-Americans segregated off by both racism and class. There was a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle understanding that certain sports were for Black people and certain sports like tennis were above our pay grade. Even with historical breakthroughs from people like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and contemporary visibility from the Zina Garrisons and James Blakes of the world, tennis never resonated like basketball or boxing until Venus and Serena were running things. They became iconic figures in Black America due to athletic success, commercial viability and cultural honesty.

But Father Time is well regarded as being non-negotiable and when he says it’s time to go, he always means it.  Everyone who lives long enough will eventually get old and we all know that the shelf-life is short for pro athletes, even more so for tennis players, with many of them done by their late 20s. Well, Venus is 32 years old and Serena is 30.

The lack of true passion for tennis, as a sport, will emerge as an issue once Venus and Serena retire in the near future. And, given Venus and Serena’s broad appeal, this isn’t just germane to Black viewership. Grandma, your kid brother, the frat boy, the sorority girl – who’s going to attract the average/casual fan?

If we haven’t already, soon we will see that the Williams Sisters’ apex was the last crest for a tennis audience captivated by two sisters from Compton with once-in-a-generation talents.

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