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Reflecting on Serena Williams' career and legacy as the G.O.A.T retires from tennis

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Serena Williams is planning to retire from tennis or, as she told Vogue, she's, quote, "evolving away from tennis towards other things that are important to me." Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champion and one of the greatest athletes in any professional sport. While she didn't definitively say what her last match would be, it could happen at the U.S. Open, which begins later this month. Jessica Luther is a journalist and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast "Burn It All Down," and she joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JESSICA LUTHER: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So let's just get right into it - the Vogue cover story. You know, I have to say, as I was reading it when I got to work this morning, I was really gutted when I first saw the story. But as I kept reading it and hearing her rationale and all the things she hopes to realize in her next chapter, I also found myself feeling sort of happy for her.

LUTHER: Yeah, I'm thrilled. I mean, she talks a lot in the piece. She starts the piece talking about wanting to grow the family - Olympia, her daughter, wanting to grow the family, having a sister - and yeah, you know, getting more into venture capitalism. And she's long had side projects, right? Fashion, jewelry - all these things that she's done. And she has so much in front of her. And you could really read that in the Vogue piece. Like, there's more to come from Serena Williams.

SUMMERS: Absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about her career because she is widely considered to be tennis' G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time. What are a couple of the biggest highlights from a career that has shone so brightly for so long? I realize that might be sort of an unfair question.

LUTHER: (Laughter). It does feel unfair, I'll say. Twice she did what is called the Serena Slam, where she won four of the Grand Slams in a row, not in the same calendar year, but four in a row. She did it in 2002, 2003 and then again over a decade later in 2014 and 2015. That's incredible. I want to talk about Australian Open 2017. She famously, now, beat Venus in the final. She was pregnant with Olympia at the time, two months. Venus knew that, but the rest of us didn't. And I find that entire match really remarkable because you cannot talk about Serena's career without talking about Venus. Serena doesn't talk about her career without talking about Venus. There's something really beautiful about thinking about that's probably her last Grand Slam that she'll ever win, and it was a real family affair.

SUMMERS: Yeah. You know, the way in Vogue that she talked about her desire to grow her family, to have another child, I was really taken by the way that she talked about how she loves being a woman. She loved being pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. But she also put out there quite clearly that for women in sport, they are presented with this incredibly unfair choice. What did you make of that?

LUTHER: It just felt very honest to me. I mean, she wrote, 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.

SUMMERS: And she is quite exacting, too, about the physical realities of all of this. The fact of going from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final, playing through breastfeeding, postpartum depression - it's different for an athlete like her than it is for some of the men that she makes the comparison to.

LUTHER: Absolutely. And I think it's important to reiterate, like, Serena almost died when she gave birth. To come back at all after that - and that was actually the second time she dealt with pulmonary embolisms in her career - that is an incredible physical feat all by itself. The fact that she went to four more Grand Slam finals after that happened to her is just - it is so hard to really quantify what Serena Williams has done in her career. It is spectacular.

SUMMERS: As I think about the scope of Serena Williams' career, I think about the generation of young women players, young Black women in particular, who point to Serena and Venus as their inspiration, who saw their presence on those courts as, frankly, revolutionary.

LUTHER: You can look at tennis today and see the impact of Serena and Venus easily. They have changed the way that tennis literally looks. Sloane Stephens - of course, Naomi Osaka, who has been very clear about the influence of Serena and Venus on her career - Coco Gauff, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend - I mean, we've had Vicky Duval, Jamie Hampton in the past. The future of women of color in the sport of tennis is so bright, and the light that has shined the way has been Serena and Venus.

SUMMERS: You know, in Vogue and in other recent interviews, Serena Williams says she doesn't like to think about her own legacy. But I want to ask you about that. In 10, 20, 30 years, if I come back and you and I have this conversation, what are we still going to be talking about? What will people be remembering about her?

LUTHER: Oh, I mean, her legacy are certainly the 23 Grand Slams. I mean, she will forever be considered in the greatest of all time discussion. But I think we'll be talking about that amazing serve. She has the most perfect serve in tennis. It's powerful, but it's so skillful. The grit and the fight that is so breathtaking as a fan of sport - and I really think we'll still be talking about that. And also, of course, the shift in the tennis world, both who's playing tennis and how they're playing tennis.

SUMMERS: Jessica Luther is a journalist and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast "Burn It All Down." Thank you so much for being here.

LUTHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.