Ann Liguori on Tennis: The Legendary Serena Williams Is Saying Goodbye

APTOPIX US Open Tennis
Serena Williams, of the United States, reacts after defeating Anett Kontaveit, of Estonia, during the second round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Many tennis fans and sports history buffs can appreciate how extra special this U.S. Open Tennis Championship (August 29–September 11) is with the news that 23-time Major Champion Serena Williams will be retiring after this Major Championship.

Williams’ announcement in the September issue of Vogue that she will be “evolving away from tennis” is sentimental for me, as well, as I’ve covered every one of her 6 U.S. Open titles and have reported on most of her matches at Flushing Meadows as the tennis reporter for WFAN-NY since the station started in 1987!

From the WFAN broadcast booth overlooking the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, I’ve witnessed Williams’ emergence from a teenage tennis phenom to a superstar and cultural icon — one of the most influential female athletes of our time, breaking down barriers and becoming the sport’s most dominant force. I had the opportunity to see her greatness, feel the emotion, watch her outbursts and talk about the many triumphs and disappointments during her legendary career.

She won her first Major title at the 1999 U.S. Open as a 17-year-old, white beads in her hair, beating top-ranked Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 (4), and becoming the first Black woman to win a Slam singles title in the Open Era.

In the much-anticipated 2002 final, Williams beat her sister Venus Williams, who was the two-time defending champion, in a rematch of the previous year’s final, 6-4, 6-3. What made the win even more historic was that Williams was in the midst of the “Serena Slam,” winning all four major singles titles starting with the 2002 French Open, the 2002 Wimbledon, the 2002 U.S. Open and the 2003 Australian Open, a non-calendar year Grand Slam. (Serena achieved a second Serena Slam winning four straight Major titles from 2014–2015).

Her third U.S. Open title came in 2008 with a straight set win over Jelena Jankovic. In both the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Open finals, Williams beat Victoria Azarenka in three sets, and then in 2014, she dominated against her buddy, Caroline Wozniacki, and did not drop a set during the entire championship.

I was also there to witness several of Williams’ meltdowns. Who could forget her 2018 final against then 20-year-old Naomi Osaka when the umpire accused Williams of getting coached (her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was in the stands and admitted afterwards that he was giving her hand signals). During the match, Williams yelled at the umpire, “I’ve never cheated. You owe me an apology!” She was given code violations, then penalized a game for calling the umpire a thief and Osaka went on to win her first Grand Slam title, 6-2, 6-4.

Years before that shocker, in Williams’ 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters, I watched in disbelief as Williams unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against a lineswoman who called a foot fault against her (this was after she was given a warning for racket abuse). Everyone in the stadium heard her threaten to shove a tennis ball down the lineswoman’s throat. She received a point penalty and therefore lost the match.

The great, the bad, and the ugly — her sheer emotion, will and determination to win, is a big part of what has made Williams so great on the court.

She wrote in Vogue magazine that she never liked the word retirement. “It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. 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. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family.”

The fact that Williams’ 4-year-old daughter Olympia has been saying that she wants to be a big sister seems like the clincher in Williams’ difficult decision to step away from competitive tennis. Always the thinker, she pointed out in the Vogue piece that she never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” she wrote. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a woman, and I loved every second of being pregnant with Olympia. I was one of those annoying women who adored being pregnant and was working until the day I had to report to the hospital — although things got super complicated on the other side. And I almost did do the impossible: A lot of people don’t realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017. But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.”

Knowing when to say goodbye to a competitive playing career for any superstar athlete, as history reveals, is most difficult.

Earlier this year, seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady retired, only to unretire 40 days later to play in what will be his 23rd NFL season. Brady recently turned 45.

I was delighted when Kim Clijsters, former world No. 1, came back to competitive tennis two years after retiring in 2007 to have a child. But Clijsters was 25 years old when she unretired and she came back and won the 2009 and 2010 U.S. Open wins in addition to the 2011 Australian Open.

Years ago, hockey great Gordie Howe shared his story on my Sports Innerview cable series, coming out of a three-year retirement at the age of 45, after 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, to join the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association where he played with his two sons.

Despite being one short of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams will go down in history as arguably the “Greatest of All Time.” Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova certainly enter the GOAT discussion but it’s difficult to compare players from different periods in history. Williams’ comebacks from injuries and from health issues, (she came back from life-threatening pulmonary embolisms), have inspired and amazed. Her impact on and off the court, opening doors for men and women of color, and inspiring a generation of people, young and old, with her improbable success from a young girl growing up in Compton, Calif., to a superstar working mom, on and off the court, will be her legacy.

It’s been an honor to have been there in person to watch Williams at the U.S. Open all these years. The next chapter for the legend could be equally exciting, full of happiness, joy and success as a mother, running her business empire and giving back.

Ann Liguori is a trailblazer in sports broadcasting. You can hear her “Talking Golf” show on Sundays, 7–8 a.m., on WFAN-NY, her Sports Innerview show on Saturdays, 7–8 a.m. on WLIW 88.3 FM, and her weekly podcasts on SI Golf/Morning Read. For more info on Liguori, visit
annliguori.com.

Ann Liguori covering the U.S. Open
Courtesy Ann Liguori

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