Retirement from sport rarely plays out the way it is depicted in movies. We picture an athlete finishing with a win against the odds, having achieved everything they wanted out of the sport and moving happily into the next phase of their life.
In reality, very few athletes finish with a win. No matter how hard they wish for it, they walk away having lost a final, or without making a final at all. And all too often retirement is forced – through injury or non-selection – and the athlete is left with a niggling feeling that they left unfinished business behind.
In most people’s eyes, Serena Williams falls more into the Hollywood fantasy category. She holds the Open-era record of 23 Grand Slam titles; she has four Olympic gold medals; and her childhood has been memorialised in the 2021 film King Richard. She has been outspoken and unapologetically herself, she has inspired people across the world.
If she wins the US Open next month, she even has a shot at the complete fairytale ending – bowing out with a win on the biggest stage.
Except that in Williams’s mind, it would not be a fairytale. She does not feel the way many athletes do when they retire after a long career – physically and emotionally ravaged by years in the often-brutal world of elite sport. Despite all her achievements, her full trophy cabinet, the millions she has inspired, Williams is likely to walk away feeling like she has unfinished business – whether or not she wins that final tournament.
She is making a choice that women all over the world make every day: family or career? The 40-year-old has been upfront about her wish to have a second child. After the complications that nearly killed her following the birth of her first child Olympia, having another child is not a simple or straightforward matter, and after long consideration, she has made the understandable decision to not attempt to balance professional tennis and pregnancy this time around.
In her farewell to tennis, published in Vogue on Tuesday, Williams cut straight to the point about the unfairness of her decision.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair. 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.”
While it is a problem that is overwhelmingly prevalent in women’s sport, it is certainly not an issue that is limited to sport. It is noticeable in sport because of its public visibility and because it is a physically demanding job. Only last month the former Queensland Firebirds netballer Romelda Aiken-George claimed she was not offered a contract for next season because the club deemed it “too risky” (The club unequivocally denies that she was not offered a contract because she is pregnant).
But even in the world of office jobs that involve train commutes rather than training sessions, very similar sacrifices are being made. More women than men are taking part-time roles to avoid putting their children in full-time childcare for financial reasons or simply because they feel guilty. They are asking for more flexibility to do school pick ups. They are deciding not to put themselves forward for that promotion or take that opportunity to travel because the burden of organising childcare to accommodate those increased demands on their time is too much.
Williams’s words about her choice speak deeply to many women balancing these multiple lives.
“I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete,” she said. “I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”
It is something that many women have dreamt about – the opportunity to be fully invested in our careers while we are at work and fully invested in our families outside of it. But these lives bleed into each other and feeling forced to make a choice is heartbreaking. Sometimes it seems as if we are trying to be too many different people at once.
Williams’s retirement – and the fact that she has been so open about resenting that she must make this choice – are stark reminders that even in 2022, women’s time is often not our own. When one of the most successful women in the world is forced to choose between her family and her career, when it is a choice she does not want to make, it is troubling to stop and consider what that means for the progress we have made.
“I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis,” Williams said at the end of her farewell. It is a simple sentiment, but one that rings true. So many women have versions of ourselves buried deep inside that we miss every day.