10 BURNING QUESTIONS IN 2022: WILL SERENA WILLIAMS PLAY AGAIN? ISHA PRICE, SERENA’S SISTER SAYS SERENA DOESN’T OWE ANYBODY ANYTHING

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She won’t be playing the Australian Open, along with her sister Venus. “She doesn’t owe anybody anything,” says her sister Isha Price.
The clock is ticking. It gets louder every day. Time is slipping away, the ticks that mark its passage growing louder and louder to legions of fans who hope that Serena Williams, now 40 years old, will equal or surpass the all-time Grand Slam singles title record (24) held by Margaret Court.

Sometimes it seems that Williams herself is the only one who isn’t hearing that clock. More likely, she hears but chooses to ignore it. It seems that when it comes to bagging her 24th singles Slam, Serena just isn’t that into it.

Is she going, or already gone?
Serena William 251869Williams, who passed the 40-year milestone last September, has been decimated by injuries late in her career. Due mainly to inactivity, her ranking is down to No. 41, which will greatly affect her seeding if she does choose to play again. Her daughter, Alexis Olympia, is 4, and Williams has more than enough other ways to fill any void or nagging sense of unfinished business.

“I think even right now, people are waiting on the next one,” Isha Price, Serena’s sister, told co-hosts Zina Garrison and Chanda Rubin for an episode in the recently released podcast, The Goat: Serena (full disclosure: I worked with Garrison and Rubin on that podcast). “She doesn’t owe anybody anything. [Expecting more] is almost like a negation of what she’s done, because it’s never going to be enough. Having all her other interests allows her to be this whole person, and not just be solely identified by that number.”

Those other interests gradually have been pushing all-in dedication to tennis to the sidelines. The long list of the extra-curricular activities that distinguish Williams from the vast majority of her peers includes hands-on motherhood; Serena Ventures, her eponymous venture capital fund, which focuses on mission-driven companies and already boasts 50 portfolio companies; and a panoply of other commercial and philanthropic involvements.

Serena at the Legacy Classic HBCU Basketball Invitational at Prudential Center on December 18, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey.
Serena at the Legacy Classic HBCU Basketball Invitational at Prudential Center on December 18, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey.

Family, though, looms as possibly the greatest impediment to Williams bringing sufficient energy to bear on tennis. Olympia is no longer a dependent toddler. At age four, her capacity for learning and socializing is growing by leaps and bounds. That raises questions of how Williams and her husband Alexis Ohanian choose to live.

“Like, literally since her (Olympia’s) birth, Serena has not spent a 24-hour period away from her,” Price told the podcast hosts. “It’s an amazing thing. I don’t know how she does it.”

Motherhood, well-documented in Williams’ case on social media, also has blunted some of the sharper edges in her competitive temperament. Jill Smoller, Williams’ longtime manager and confidant, told Garrison and Rubin: “It (motherhood) has softened her. She has to have that edge when she’s on the court and that’s been the nuance. How do you have that diabolical edginess when you have this other softer piece? When you don’t have children, it’s probably easier to do. Because those matches become life and death.”

Williams hasn’t done much living—or dying—on the edge in some time. A semifinalist at the Australian Open last year, Williams subsequently played just seven matches before a hamstring injury forced her to retire after just six games into her Wimbledon opener. Pam Shriver, the Tennis Channel analyst, told the podcasters, “What we saw at Wimbledon—that slip and the injury and she couldn’t finish—it’s getting to the point where she’s walking that fine line physically, where she’s almost one injury away from not being able to continue. And that’s going to be a difficult day.”
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Even if that day hasn’t come yet, the reality is that Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam title in nearly five years, her last triumph at the 2017 Australian Open. Although she reached back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and at the US Open in 2018 and 2019, she has won just one, low-grade title (Auckland 2020) since giving birth. When she has played, Williams has often been erratic and emotional.

Hamstring injuries can take a long time to heal, but Williams has been out for over six months and counting. You could almost hear the clock tick when she released a statement in early December confirming that she would not play Down Under in 2022. Interestingly, she said nothing about her hamstring, allowing only that she was skipping the event on “the advice of my medical team.”

She softened the blow of that news by adding that she was “excited to return and compete at my highest level,” but gave no indication of her plans to do so.

“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” said Serena Williams after her departure from the 2021 Australian Open.
“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” said Serena Williams after her departure from the 2021 Australian Open.

Williams’ decision to sit out the Australian Open may be a tell. Statistically, Melbourne and Wimbledon are the places where Serena’s chances to claim another major are best. She’s won seven singles titles at each, the most among the four majors. Her year-to-year consistency over two decades in Melbourne is unparalleled.

There are a few unusual factors in play here. Australian Open tournament officials have made it clear that vaccination (or an independently certifiable medical reason for not being vaxxed) is a condition for taking part in the first major of the year. Williams has not divulged that she is—or isn’t—vaccinated against COVID-19. (Editor’s Note: Serena attended the Met Gala, which required vaccination.) Apart from any vaccination piece in Williams’s calculation, concerns about the reinvigorated pandemic, and the sometimes onerous government-driven protocols it generates, surely are a factor.
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The French Open has been the most challenging major for Williams, although it has also staged some of her greatest career-defining moments. Still, she’s won “just” three titles at Roland Garros. Turning to Wimbledon, Williams remains just two matches short of 100 career wins, and was denied the opportunity to reach a third successive final when the pandemic caused the All England Club to cancel the tournament in 2020.

As Williams went deeper into her 30s, Wimbledon has seemed the best venue for her, even while she absorbed two unexpected losses in the 2018 and 2019 finals, one to Angelique Kerber and one to Simona Halep. The relatively swift points on soft grass, the premium on the serve, and even the hushed atmosphere of Centre Court all seem to inspire her, even as the slippery nature of the surface early in the tournament is a hazard to older players—which she experienced, first hand, in her 2021 return.

Then there’s the US Open. To many Serena-watchers, the tournament over time become a minefield of distractions, hype and controversies. Her recent US Open history has been painful, a tale of heavy pressure and faltering efforts against younger players looking to take her place at the top of the game. She has earned six titles at Flushing Meadows, but not one since 2014, while claiming championships at every other major in that interim.

Williams became emotional during her post-match press conference after taking just seven games and no sets from Naomi Osaka in the semifinals of last year’s Australian Open. She cut off that press conference prematurely, but not before telling a reporter who questioned Williams on her future, “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Now it makes you wonder, was Serena telling us something?

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