This was going to be about whether Serena Williams is the greatest sportswoman in history. After all, who was better?
Maybe Babe Didrikson, with Olympic gold medals in two separate athletics events and 10 major wins on the LPGA tour; perhaps Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals over three Olympic Games; or Jackie Joyner-Kersee, with her back-to-back titles in the Olympic heptathlon; or Allyson Felix, who has just retired after winning more medals than any other runner in history. From Williams’s sport there’s Martina Navratilova, with 167 singles titles and another 177 in doubles, or Steffi Graf, who spent 377 weeks at the top of the world rankings.
But all comparisons are odorous, and this one smells worse than most. Because if you’ve watched Williams play, listened and read what she has to say, then you have to wonder why anyone would want to try to put her, or any of them, in that one box.
Why shouldn’t Williams be considered a greater player than Roger Federer? Or Rafa Nadal? Or Novak Djokovic? Or the rest of the men who played in her era? She’s won more singles titles than any of them, more Olympic medals too, and did it all, as they used to say about Ginger Rogers, “backwards and in high heels”.
As Williams wrote in the Vogue article announcing her retirement (sorry, her “evolution”) from professional tennis: “I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression.” And did it all while putting up with vast quantities of insufferable bullshit.
Williams doesn’t want to quit. Not yet. She would rather play on next year and beyond. But she can’t because she has to choose between having more children and having a playing career. “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.”
So here, at the end of a 27-year career spent fighting to be treated equally with the male players, is the inescapable fact that her biology still leaves her at a disadvantage. Williams compared herself to Tom Brady, but she could just as well have chosen any of those three male players from her own game.
Federer, 41, won five of his grand slam titles after he became a father for the first time in 2009, three after his wife gave birth to a second set of twins in 2014. The biggest impact having four children had on his body is that he needed surgery in 2016 because he twisted his knee while he was running a bath for them.
Djokovic, 35, won five of his grand slam titles after his son was born in 2014, and three of them after his daughter in 2017. He hinted a couple of years ago that they would like to have more children. When Djokovic has talked about how fatherhood has impacted his tennis, it’s often in terms of how it’s taught him to be a better person, and so made him a better player.
Nadal, 36, announced in June that his wife is having a baby. So he won the French Open earlier that month while his wife was in the early stages of pregnancy, which must have been distracting for him. Williams, on the other hand, won the Australian Open in 2017 while she was two months pregnant, which, as she writes, seems “almost impossible”.
There was speculation that Nadal, too, might retire after becoming a father. His coach Carlos Moyá doesn’t think so. “I don’t think paternity will induce Rafael Nadal to stop playing,” Moya said when asked about it, “on the contrary, it will be an extra motivation to keep winning.”
For the men in her line of work, parenthood is usually framed as an opportunity for some kind of spiritual change. For Williams, it was that and also three rounds of emergency surgery, one where she had her stomach and womb cut open, another where they found the hematoma that had flooded her abdomen, and a third where they inserted a filter in a major vein to stop more blood clots travelling into her lungs, and then spending six weeks unable even to get out of bed.
Williams has spent her life dealing with double standards in the way male and female players are spoken and written about, what they’re paid, the way their behaviour is policed, and the respect they get. For the past decade, Forbes has published an annual list of the world’s 100 richest athletes. Federer has been ever‑present in the top 10, even topped it in 2020. Williams has never made it that high, or even close to it. No woman has.
Sometimes, such as in 2019, she has been the only one in the top 100. Well yes, men said. “The stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches,” Djokovic said in 2016. “I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more.”
He apologised for it later, after Williams took the time to explain what he had got wrong. “Novak is entitled to his opinion but if he has a daughter – I think he has a son right now – he should talk to her and tell her how his son deserves more money because he is a boy.”
Williams has always had a way of explaining these things. Her farewell statement is an eloquent acknowledgment of one inequality she couldn’t overcome. Not that it stopped her trying.