Tennis

Serena Williams has never hidden her light under a bushel, but the lavish corporate spin on her career as she prepares to walk away from tennis cheapens her achievements. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The evolution of brand Serena

Serena Williams’ graceful ball toss during a match in Toronto this month.
Serena Williams’ graceful ball toss during a match in Toronto this month.
Credit: Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images

With unapologetic grandiosity, Serena Williams this month announced her retirement from tennis – effective following the US Open, which starts on August 29. The instrument for this was a ghostwritten essay in Vogue, accompanied by a glamorous photo shoot. Hers has been a brilliant career, and she’s entitled to announce its end in any way she likes, but it reminded me a little of The Decision, LeBron James’s notorious, elaborate, lucrative and comically self-aggrandising TV event of 2010 in which he announced, after lengthy panel discussions and costly ad spots, that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Americans aren’t especially subtle, and this goes double for their gods.

To be sure, Williams’ announcement was far less gauche, but I rolled my eyes when reading an early paragraph in her essay devoted to extensive hand-wringing about what to call this stage of her life. After elaborately dismissing “retirement” and “transition” she settles upon “evolution”. Of course, she does. Teachers retire; supernovas evolve.

Perhaps my eye-rolling is unfair, given that Williams – a confident and passionately demonstrative player – was dogged throughout her career by expectations of humility that were not applied to most male players. But it’s not so much the ego that grates me, as the ego that’s artfully laundering itself with corporate patter. “Mistakes are learning experiences, and I embrace those moments,” she writes.

Let me put it another way: immodesty doesn’t bother me, but the deployment of clichés and spin doctors to help smooth its creases does.

 

The story of the Williams sisters is remarkable. Coached by an unusually focused father, who conceived his grand plan to raise tennis maestros before they were out of nappies, Serena and Venus were drilled on the cracked public courts of Compton, Los Angeles – a world away from the white and exclusive country clubs that typically produce the sport’s pros.

The sisters would go on to dominate women’s tennis for two decades. Serena won her first grand slam singles title in 1999, at the age of 17, and her last (barring a miracle at Flushing Meadows next month) in 2017. That was when she beat her sister in the Australian Open final while two months pregnant, and claimed her 23rd grand slam title – a preposterous sum and just one shy of the all-time record held by Margaret Court.

In the near two decades between these bookends, Serena was criticised for her pride, her fashion, her aggression. She was booed, jeered and her powerful physique subject to creepy and racist judgements. She could be both cruel and gracious; self-absorbed and politically conscious. As taught by her father, who once encouraged local kids to heckle his daughters on the court, she could transform abuse or rejection into an imperious will. Like many greats, she found fuel in grievance.

Me? I’ll remember that ball toss, and I encourage you to find a photo of Williams executing it – a photo, not a video, and one taken with the lens staring down the baseline, so that she’s caught in profile. The photo should capture the upwards flight of the ball that’s only just been gently launched from her still outstretched fingertips. And crystallised in that photo you’ll see an exquisite poise, transfixing and beautiful, the whole action a graceful counterpoint to an otherwise famously powerful game.

 

If one thing comes through in Serena’s essay, it’s how difficult retirement (or “evolution”) is. Understandably: she’s been holding a racquet since she was three; she’s 41 next month. For more than half of that time she’s been on the tour.

It’s been one long and incredible party, and she doesn’t want it to end. The essay felt to me one part of her milking the twilight. I don’t mean this dismissively – I’m someone who has mawkishly held several farewell parties when leaving a city – but I wasn’t surprised to read, later in her essay, that she’s “terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst”.

Williams’ relationship to the game is very different to Ash Barty’s, who retired from tennis this year as the world No. 1 and aged just 25. Barty’s modest announcement gave the impression of relief; Williams’ has a sense of existential dread. So it goes. It’s hard to leave a game you’ve defined but that has also defined you.

We might all be grateful, though, that Barty didn’t use her announcement to spruik her venture capital firm, or namecheck the ultimate #girlboss Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s longstanding chief operating officer and billionaire apologist.

Ash Barty remains unmistakably human; some time ago, Williams transformed into something else: an icon, an idea, a corporate brand. Her retirement essay is the latest stage in this development. “In my own life, the balance has been slowly shifting toward Serena Ventures,” she writes. “Every morning, I’m so excited to walk downstairs to my office and jump onto Zooms and start reviewing decks of companies we’re considering investing in.” (Ironically, within hours of writing this column, Barty announced her first role post-tennis: chief of inspiration for Optus. That’s her actual title.)

For many years, Nike’s Tiger Woods brand disguised a spookily vacant man, infantilised by his athletic devotion. Behind the billion-dollar industry of “Air Jordan” is a cruel and repellent bully who, in his own “evolution”, bitterly retains all of the grievances that once fuelled him. “Kobe’s Mamba Mentality continues to inspire us all to be better today than we were yesterday” is a cute way to flog sneakers, but it’s also the brand for a likely rapist whose criminal charge did not “entirely surprise” his coach at the time. The once-ubiquitous Livestrong brand, named for Lance Armstrong and representing strength in adversity, derived from a ruthless and conniving cheat, whose worst sin wasn’t his serial doping, but his marshalling of an industrialised campaign of intimidation, blackmail and slander to conceal it.

Should I continue? Serena Williams is emphatically not these men and she may well funnel her fame and fortune into untold social benefit, but valorising a brand is a sad expenditure of an adult’s faith and energy. Might we not simply admire her gifts and leave the saint-making to Hollywood and Madison Avenue?

Recently, I spent the weekend with the man I’m writing a book about. For over four decades, as an intensive care paramedic, he risked his life and sanity for others. He worked at the Port Arthur massacre site, was one of the rescuers of the Beaconsfield miners, and joined the recovery operation in Christchurch after the city’s 2011 earthquake. And then there were the children he saw lost to drowning, fire, abuse or SIDS. He lives with complex PTSD and describes his home as both his castle and prison.

And it was into that home he recently welcomed me. He inquired about the warmth of my blankets and the temperature of my room. He left a bottle of water beside my bed and took me out to dinner. For all that he’s done, and for all that he suffers, his overwhelming thought was my comfort. He is quiet, tender and becomes self-conscious if he speaks for too long. His wife was similarly easy and gracious in her accommodation of me.

A journalist can come to valorise their subjects; transform their gratitude into exaggerated sympathy. But I’ve been speaking with this man for nine months and can guarantee his rare decency and modesty.

We have heroes, if you really want them. They just don’t have sponsorship deals with Nike.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Brand Serena".

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