by Lori Watson
Many of us were rooting hard for Serena last week, and many of us have been rooting for her on and off the court for over two decades now. Her loss to Naomi Osaka was heartbreaking and hard to watch; it never seemed like she hit her Serena-stride. Were she to lose at playing her best, it would be easier to accept, I think. After the match, the reporters at her press conference and many subsequent opiners immediately zeroed in on whether she would or should retire, interpreting her gestures at the end of the match as a secret signal that she would never play at the Australian Open again. This may be it, they said. In her presser, they hounded and hounded her for a statement about retirement. So much so, she shut down the interview, declared “I am done,” and left the room appearing tearful. That moment and the further speculation in the press got me, one super-sized Serena fan, super-sized pissed off.
I began to reflect on the narrative framing the last few years of Serena’s career—the race to 24, beat Margaret Court—the homophobic villain in the story—the can she do it as a mom, can she have it all, be it all, is the G.O.A.T? Few humans could survive under that pressure, let along thrive. Meanwhile, she has played four grand-slam finals since her return from maternity leave, two semis and one quarterfinal—in four years! Few players on the tour will ever achieve even that much less is her standing ever likely to be touched, the 23 grand slam titles, the doubles-titles, the gold medals, the 73 WTA titles, and on and on and on. And, yet she and we, her fans, feel the pain of the one elusive, so far, accolade: the 24th. Of course, that accolade is false, premised on a false narrative—Margaret Court played prior to the Open era, so what that she won 24 under much less competitive circumstances? Serena need not account for herself to any of us—not the media, not her fans, not the 24ers. She is still playing unbelievable tennis. If she were anyone other than Serena, the talk of retirement would be laughable in the face of her achievements in just the last four years. A player that consistently makes it to the finals, semis, quarterfinals, wins other WTA tournaments on the regular is a super-star on that basis alone.
Our need for a hero, projected onto Serena, through the false narrative of 24 (ride or die), needs to end. Of course, we want to see her silence any critic once and for all. Of course, the power of her will to win, her spirit, inspires us to believe that if you just want it bad enough, anything can happen. But, Serena has nothing left to prove—to herself, to you, to me, to the world. She is the greatest of all time, about that there can be no doubt. But, like any hero, the tension between wanting them to prove it again and waiting for them to fall to the Earth drives the criticism. Were she to take that 24th, then the march to 25 begins, or the could she have surpassed it only if… she didn’t become a mom, she played more when younger (she and Venus took time away from tennis to cultivate other aspects of their lives and were roundly criticized for it), and on and on. We live to love our heroes; we live to take them down. But, not this hero, not this time. Serena can play just as much or as little as she likes, and I am gonna’ watch, grateful for every moment she lets us witness her.
Lori Watson is a Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St Louis. She’s also a Serena Williams super fan.