TORONTO: A banner advertising the match of tennis star Serena Williams, who said that she plans to retire after the 2022 US Open, hangs above a ticket booth outside a stadium at the Toronto Open.—Reuters
TORONTO: A banner advertising the match of tennis star Serena Williams, who said that she plans to retire after the 2022 US Open, hangs above a ticket booth outside a stadium at the Toronto Open.—Reuters

TORONTO: Serena Williams’ decision to bow out has left tennis staring at the beginning of the end of the sport’s golden era, a dreaded but inevitable prospect that has long been on the horizon.

The American, who will turn 41 next month, said in a Vogue article on Tuesday that she is “evolving away from tennis” and added in an Instagram post that “the countdown has begun.” for her to quit playing and devote more time to her family and business.

The decision — though not unexpected given Serena’s struggles with form and injury in the past 12 months — would have sent shivers down the spines of tennis administrators and organisers.

“She’s box office,” former British number one Greg Rusedski summed it up on Sky Sports. “She’s carried women’s tennis for the last two decades with her sister Venus as well, you’ve obviously had other great players around them, but she brings your non-tennis fan to the sport.

“If you know absolutely nothing about tennis, you know the name Serena Williams. She’s iconic and we’re losing an icon of our sport and she will be truly, truly missed.”

But it will not just be a loss for women’s tennis. She could well be the first in a series of ageing greats to call time on their playing careers in the near future.

Like Serena, the triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have also dominated tennis for the last two decades and revolutionised the sport, drawing in new and old fans and a long line of sponsors.

All four of them continue to lure fans to the stands, mobile and television screens even after two decades on the tour, while their commercial pull still mesmerizes brands and advertisers.

Injuries to Serena, Federer and Nadal in recent years have raised the ‘retirement’ question time and again and fans and pundits have wondered how the sport would cope with the prospect of losing their most marketable athletes.

Federer, who turned 41 this week, has had multiple knee surgeries in the last two years and has not played a competitive match since going down in the quarter-finals of last year’s Wimbledon.

The 20-time major winner has only committed to playing at his hometown tournament in Basel and the Laver Cup later this year and it remains unclear if the father of four would be ready to commit to the rigours of the tour again.

At 36, Nadal is relatively younger but a chronic foot issue forced the Spaniard to contemplate retirement last year and in 2022 after he won a men’s record 22nd major title at the French Open, playing with numbing injection before each match in Paris.

A radio frequency treatment eased pain in his foot and allowed him to play Wimbledon but the left-hander does not know whether the injury will flare up again.

The 35-year-old Djokovic is the youngest among the lot and undoubtedly the fittest; and appears to be the best bet to keep the flag flying for tennis’ older generation.

The Serbian won his 21st major title at Wimbledon last month and has made it clear that he does not lack motivation in chasing more silverware.

While the so-called ‘Big Three’ of the men’s game have continued to stave off the younger generation when it comes to major success, Serena’s tennis career has been less productive in the past couple of years.

Her last Grand Slam triumph came in 2017 and she has not won a WTA title since lifting the ASB Classic in Auckland at the start of the 2020 season.

BIGGEST DRAW

Despite all that, Serena has remained the biggest draw in women’s tennis whenever she takes the court.

After suffering a torn right hamstring at Wimbledon last year, Serena was sidelined until playing doubles at Eastbourne in June and made a return at Wimbledon as a wild card, losing in the first round.

On Monday, Serena competed in her first hardcourt match in 18 months, defeating Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz to reach the second round of the WTA hardcourt event in Toronto, a tuneup for the US Open. It was her first singles victory since the 2021 French Open, 14 months ago.

Serena is set to play next week at Cincinnati and compete at the US Open, where she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999 at age 17.

“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me,” Serena wrote in Vogue. “I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people.

“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t ready to win Wimbledon this year. And I don’t know if I will be ready to win New York. But I’m going to try.”

Serena, who made her professional debut in 1995 a year after her older sister Venus, revolutionised women’s tennis with a lethal mix of powerful serves, groundstrokes and superb athleticism and became the most successful player in the Open Era by collecting 23 Grand Slam titles.

That success also inspired a generation of tennis players, including teen stars Coco Gauff and Emma Raducanu..

World number 11 Gauff, inspired to play tennis by Serena, said she was shocked to hear about the departure for an icon who can motivate another generation of superstars.

“The legacy that she has left through her tennis career is something that I don’t think any other player can probably touch,” Gauff said after reaching the second round of the Toronto Open. “It is something that can inspire many more generations. “I grew up watching her -- that’s the reason why I play tennis.”

Serena became an African American icon in a mostly white sport, just as Gauff is starting to do with two titles at age 19, and Gauff reminded fans that Serena is far from fading away even if her days in competitive tennis are nearing an end.

“I mean, she’s not dead but people are talking about it like she’s dying,” Gauff said. “She’s just moving onto different things.”

Reigning US Open champion Raducanu admired how the speed, power and determination of Serena changed tennis.

“She definitely changed the game,” Raducanu said. “To dominate that much, there has not really been someone who has dominated like her in the women’s game. She did change the game a lot in that respect.”

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2022

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