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The Dartmouth
February 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Retirement of two icons causes a racket in the tennis world

Not only will tennis stars Roger Federer and Serena Williams be remembered for their athleticism, but for their dedication toward friendship, humanitarian efforts and social justice.

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Two incredible tennis players that have revolutionized the sport announced their retirements this year — Roger Federer and Serena Williams are household names among tennis fans and role models for athletes around the globe. 

Federer, a Swiss tennis player, emerged as a star player after his successful performance at Wimbledon in 1998. Federer claimed his first Grand Slam Title in 2003 and won three major Grand Slam singles titles in 2004. In 2008, Federer struggled with injuries and mononucleosis despite winning gold at the Beijing Olympics in doubles with partner Stan Wawrinka. 

The tennis legend struggled with back injuries while simultaneously welcoming twins in 2014. In 2016, he had to undergo knee surgery in addition to other injury complications which caused him to drop out of the top 10 rankings. In 2018, Federer secured his 20th Grand Slam singles title with his victory at the Australian Open. Despite pandemic disruptions, Federer’s age became a more apparent topic of discussion at Wimbledon in 2021, which was his final Grand Slam appearance. 

This year, Federer signed off at the Laver Cup in London. He ended his professional career with longtime friend and competitive rival, Rafael Nadal, playing doubles by his side. The pair fought back tears as Federer completed the final match of his professional career. 

According to the Washington Post, Federer expressed gratitude for his tennis journey. “I was just happy to play tennis and spend time with my friends, really,” Federer said. “It’s been a perfect journey. I would do it all over again.”

Federer’s knee posed a challenge: Competing with a severe injury is a health risk. He described that with his knee, it was like playing on “very thin ice” to BBC Breakfast. At 41 years old, he has maintained a stellar record with over 1,500 professional matches. He has spent 310 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world and boasts 20 Grand Slam singles championships. 

Despite the final matches of his career being losses, Federer found joy in the finality of his career.

“That’s the ironic part, is everybody thinks about happy fairy-tale endings, you know?” Federer said to The New York Times. “And for me, actually it ended up being that but in a way that I never thought was going to happen.”

Federer has also made efforts to improve society. The Roger Federer Foundation works to provide educational opportunities for children in low-income communities. His athletic achievements and philanthropic efforts define him as an influential individual in society.

Serena Williams also announced her retirement this year. Another incredible athlete, Williams reshaped the tennis world and became an influential role model as a phenomenal Black female athlete. 

Williams began competing professionally at the age of 14. She boasts 23 Grand Slam titles, in addition to 14 doubles titles won with her sister Venus Williams. Serena is the highest paid female tennis player, with Venus following as the second. Serena’s last match at the U.S. Open in New York City broke records: It was the most viewed tennis broadcast in ESPN history. 

Williams has redefined motherhood for athletes. While she stepped away from tennis to have her daughter, she returned soon after to continue to compete professionally.

“A lot of people don’t realize that I was two months pregnant when I won the Australian Open in 2017,” Williams wrote in Vogue. “But I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give.” 

Being a working mother presents difficulties in any sector of the workforce, let alone for a global superstar exercising incessantly to perform well on the court. 

Williams has also spoken up about racial and gender equality in the sport. She has highlighted the racism and sexism that plagues the tennis community as well as institutions across the world. A pivotal moment was her 2018 US Open final match, when Williams lost to Naomi Osaka, but there was controversy regarding her interaction with the referee. 

The referee fined Williams $17,000 for three violations during the match. Williams called umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” after receiving a point penalty for smashing her racket— which proceeded to result in a verbal abuse penalty. 

“And for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief,’” Williams said after the match.

According to NBC, many celebrities, professional athletes and former tennis players supported Williams in her argument that there is a disconnect between the way male and female players are treated and fined for their behavior on the court. Former number one tennis player, Billie Jean King, tweeted in Williams’ defense regarding the double standard in sports. 

“When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions,” King tweeted.

Williams has also boycotted the Indian Wells tennis tournament from 2001 until 2015: In 2001, she and her family were racially targeted by members in the crowd. She is an open supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and continues to advocate for racial equality.

Retiring does not come easy for icons. Despite her immense success and record breaking career, leaving professional competition is a challenge for Williams.

“I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next,” she shared in Vogue.

Williams has plenty of things to devote her attention to following her retirement. She started Serena Ventures, a venture capitalist firm which has sponsored many startups championed by women and people of color, and said that she has plans to commit to her family life as well. 

Both Federer and Williams served the tennis community with their athletic brilliance and influential contributions. Even as they step up away from the courts, tennis fans will always hold Federer and Williams close to their hearts, not only for their performance on the courts but the individual passions that they sought away from the courts.