There are many ways to retire. There is the out-on-top method, the preserve of a lucky or disillusioned few who make the impromptu call to waltz off into the sunset an all-conqueror with nothing left to achieve, al la Michael Jordan, in 1993.
Then there are the proponents of the long goodbye, those who embark on the kind of signposted farewell tours that would make Elton John jealous, the small town detective dusting off the badge for one final job, one last dance, like Michael Jordan, in 1998.
And then there are the infinite versions of the fate to which all mortals eventually succumb, heart no longer in it, body no longer able to be, or some combination of both, the athlete simply powerless to halt the advances of Old Father Time. Like Michael Jordan, in 2003.
Serena Williams, forever the master of her own narrative, has not begun this whole ‘retirement’ malarkey by paying much heed to the playbook. For one, yesterday’s announcement came not in an Instagram post, a press conference or The New York Times, but in Vogue. Second, she says it is not a retirement at all, simply her “evolving away from tennis”.
What is to come in the final weeks of Williams’ epic career before what we shall, for the avoidance of argument, call her exit from the sporting realm, appears unlikely to conform entirely with any one of those forecasted endings either. More likely, it will carry elements of all three.
Certainly, Williams would not claim to be bowing out at the peak of her technical or physical powers, although should she triumph at the US Open next month, she would go out on top in every other sense, finally level with Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
That looks unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the women’s singles draw at Flushing Meadows in the last 12 months alone and the dream of a fairytale send-off is, just about, alive.
There will be no mawkish, season-long, global goodbye. Williams is currently in action at the Canadian Open and is then slated to play the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati before what is expected to be her last tournament, the US Open in New York. There, though, she will surely enjoy a final glorious residence on Arthur Ashe, albeit one that could just as easily last for one night only as turn into a run of sell-out shows.
In being there at all, having returned to the court not only after the birth of her first child, Olympia, in 2017, but also in defiance of a number of career-threatening injuries since, the 40-year-old has already ensured she will do what precious few get the chance to and walk away on her own terms. Or has she? For even in her Vogue article on Tuesday, Williams mused on the societal and biological constraints that have led her to this point and wondered what might have been.
“I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” she wrote. “I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I’d be out there playing and winning.”
In a different world, she said, she might be able to be a Tom Brady. Seeking advice on even attempting her latest comeback, she turned to Tiger Woods. When you occupy the Serena-sphere, there are only a select few to whom you can compare and relate.
Regardless of the course these final weeks take, it is with those greats that, in a sporting context, Williams is cemented.
“Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolising something bigger than tennis,” she added, rather underselling herself. Surely, Williams must know that off the court, too, her gargantuan legacy is already secure.
Failing to surpass or even match Court’s haul clearly nags. It looked inevitable when Williams won her 21st Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 2015, and even after becoming a mother, there have been four chances to get there, four defeats in four finals that will have left the kind of sting only such a dominant champion can feel.
“Maybe I thought about it too much, and that didn’t help,” Williams said of her mindset going into those matches. “The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually, it’s extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”
Shoulda, woulda, coulda? Perhaps. But look back at every tournament played, every record broken, every ceiling shattered, during one of sport’s great careers, and more often than not it’s been a case of won, done, did.