Serena Williams and Her Fellow Tennis Greats Are Limping Toward the Exits

Serena Williams’s announcement of her withdrawal from the U.S. Open included 78 words and a heart emoji.

It was cool and clinical, referring to her medical team’s advice to rest a torn hamstring to avoid further injury and a nod to New York, “one of the most exciting cities in the world and one of my favorite places to play,” even if it has also been the site of her biggest meltdowns.

Williams became the third aging tennis giant in 10 days to withdraw from the U.S. Open, the year’s final Grand Slam, following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s revelations about their own injury struggles. It was also the latest reminder of how messy and cruel the ends of even the most storied tennis careers usually are, especially for those who stay even slightly past their sell-by dates.

Nadal, 35, may have some good miles left in his bones, despite their occasional fragility, but Federer turned 40 this month, and Williams turns 40 in September.

“Forty in tennis is like 65 in another job,” said John McEnroe, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and ESPN commentator.

There are many reasons that tennis does not lend itself to perfect endings. The modern game imposes immense physical demands and a relentless schedule. Its ranking system rewards consistent, elite play and punishes those whose aging bodies only allow them to dabble with lower seeds and more difficult early-round matches. The knockout format prevents anyone, regardless of past performance, from being guaranteed a grand setting for a final match, which can easily occur on a random Tuesday in a half-empty stadium.

The result is a stark choice for even the best tennis players: Go out on top while most likely leaving some championships on the table, or meander through a frustrating descent into being OK at best, which can be less than fun in a sport that shines its brightest lights on the top two or four players and lumps nearly everyone else into something of an also-ran category.

A star on a team sport can flicker then fade amid the protection of teammates. There’s an unforgiving loneliness to stardom in tennis.

The tennis equivalent of Derek Jeter’s gift-collecting farewell tour as the Yankees’ shortstop — an unproductive .256 batting average over 145 games coupled with not good but not embarrassing defense — is a lot of early-round losses to journeymen.

Martina Navratilova was still winning doubles titles at 49, but few top singles players have followed her lead, and those who have opted to relinquish chances at future glory are rare.

Steffi Graf won the 1999 French Open for her 22nd Grand Slam title, and made the Wimbledon final a month later in July. That August, she suffered a pulled hamstring and decided to retire. She said she had lost the motivation to do what was necessary to continue to play at the top of the sport. She was just 30.

Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras, the winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, said Sampras spent months following his victory at the 2002 U.S. Open figuring out whether he wanted to keep playing. He practiced, he stayed in shape, and he pondered what he still wanted from the game.

Then, one day in the spring of 2003, Sampras called Annacone and told him he had figured it out. He said he was done, that he had nothing left to prove to himself. Sampras was just 32, and Annacone is certain he had more big titles left in his racket.

“I don’t know how you can win and never play another match, but Pete had such clarity,” Annacone said.

Compared with so many final chapters in tennis, the Sampras exit has a certain grace.

Andy Murray, once a member of the game’s so-called Big Four with Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, is continuing his attempt to come back from hip replacement surgery but remains outside the top 100.

“It’s tough to watch Andy Murray right now,” said McEnroe, who spoke of the increased pressure he once felt as an aging player with a diminished amount of sand left at the top of the hourglass.

At the moment, Federer’s final act may be at Wimbledon, losing a set 6-0 on Centre Court with his injured knee to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in the quarterfinal.

Nadal won his 13th French Open and 20th Grand Slam singles title last October, but he fell in four sets in June to Djokovic at Roland Garros in the 2021 French Open semifinals, where he has been nearly unbeatable. He skipped Wimbledon and the Olympics, and he was last seen losing to Lloyd Harris of South Africa in the third round of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. His comeback will hinge on solving a congenital foot problem.

Williams injured her hamstring early in her opening match at Wimbledon and limped off the court.

​​In an interview on Wednesday, Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’s coach, said that the entire team knew as soon as she suffered the injury at Wimbledon that it would be a challenge for Williams to be ready for the U.S. Open, given the severity of the damage. She spent weeks resting and receiving treatments to try to nurse her leg back into shape while trying to maintain her fitness and form.

“We tried everything. She did everything she could,” Mouratoglou said.

He said that if the tournament was being played in three or four weeks she might be able to compete, but the risk of long-term damage if she played now was too great. The U.S. Open starts on Aug. 30 in New York.

“She still wants to play and still loves to play, still wants to win Grand Slams,” Mouratoglou said of Williams. But to do that she needs to be able to train and practice at the highest level, and lately that has been a challenge. An Achilles tendon injury at last year’s U.S. Open hampered her preparations for the Australian Open in February.

He said there had been no discussion about retirement and would likely speak about what comes next for his star player in a few weeks. “I don’t have any certainty for the future at this point,” he said.

The storybook ending that a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title would provide seems increasingly unlikely, given the depth of the sport and the demands of the competition over two weeks, said Pam Shriver, the former top player and Grand Slam doubles champion. Williams has reached four Grand Slam finals since returning from maternity leave following the birth of her daughter and has not won a set in any of those matches.

“I don’t have enough evidence to tell me that she is going to be able to win seven matches and be the last one standing,” Shriver said Tuesday afternoon.

Eighteen hours later, Williams joined Federer and Nadal on the U.S. Open sideline.