Serena Williams and the myth of the torch-passing at the US Open in 2022

THE NEW YORK: Tennis was once compared to “boxing without the fists” to me on the Wimbledon grounds. The connection is accurate even if the sport is more closely linked with the upper class and its country clubs, strawberries and cream, and tea socials: excepting boxing, no other sport is as viscerally explicit and unsentimental about triumph and failure. Two combatants. No aid. No breaks. no teammates one victor.

After 27 years, 23 singles major titles, 14 doubles titles, two more mixed doubles titles, and for good measure four Olympic gold medals, Serena Williams announced in Vogue earlier this month that she will retire from tennis after the US Open. Since then, the atmosphere around her has been filled with nothing but sentiment. Williams, who has been a professional for about 30 years, represents the person as a dynasty, spanning six presidents and participating in parts of four decades. Her time, from braces to baby, has been their time, creating nostalgia and reflection for her and themselves for her followers who have been with her since the beginning.


In addition to Serena’s rivalries (Hingis, Hingis, Hingis!) and victories (start 1-2 lifetime vs. Sharapova, finish 20-2), her sponsors (remember Serena, the Puma years), the kits (the catsuits, 2002 Puma, and the 2018 Nike), and the looks (the beads, the blonde) serve to remind her fans of not only where they were in their personal lives at the time, who they were as people, and what She has acted as their dependable calendar.

Since Serena’s declaration three weeks ago, the US Open has taken center stage in the tennis world. The 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro will be her opponent in the tournament’s opening session on Monday night. Rituals have been used to build up to this moment, including the on-court ceremony in Toronto, testimonials from peers and rivals, the polite and natural language used to discuss her and her sport, and the unavoidable passing of the torch.

There are those who watch and those who act. The audience enjoys the traditions of this story: Williams, the legendary champion, makes her final appearance at her home major, which she has won six times. She won her maiden major at The Open in 1999, which was 23 years ago. As they did when Naomi Osaka defeated Serena in the tense, uncomfortable 2018 US Open final, the viewers look to the future, possibly to the teen sensation Coco Gauff, and recognize the lineage. They witness time’s elegiac poetry.

There is no poetry for the doer, particularly the combatant Serena Williams. The champion, a lion in winter but still a lion, is asked to participate by ritual. Passing the baton—willfully abdicating the throne—contravenes every impulse of the fighter’s nature as well as that of their potential successors, who want nothing to be given to them. The poetry of change is fantastical. That is for the observers, for those who live, die, and support one another. There is no passing of the baton in sports because, despite Serena’s choice departure from the sport, she still maintains a vise-like hold on perfection.

She has had three losses to opponents with a ranking of 100 or lower over the past two years, and she technically suffered a fourth loss when she withdrew due to injury in the second round of the 2020 French Open. Serena last competed in 10 tournaments in a calendar year in 2015, which is seven years ago.

She fell to Harmony Tan, the world No. 115, in the opening round at Wimbledon, a competition she had won seven times. She failed to win a set against Belinda Bencic of the Top 15 in Toronto’s first round or Emma Raducanu of the Top 15 in Cincinnati’s first round. Raducanu defeated the opponent 6-4, 6-0 after winning the final seven games of the match. As the soothing ritualistic language suggests, Serena is not picking her successor. She faces adversity. No one is passing the torch. The torch is being snatched, and she has no control over it.

One common sentiment shared with me by many of Serena’s ardent supporters when the Vogue article came out was the sheer anguish of witnessing Serena take a battering at the hands of opponents she once defeated while dozing off, who had no business triumphantly shaking hands with her at the net. It was difficult to see and too much to comprehend that their best champion would lose against mediocre or even below average players.

Tennis is like boxing, but without the blows. In one of these conversations, I was reminded of two dates: October 2, 1980, and June 10, 2016. In the first, Muhammad Ali was demolished by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas; in the second, Ali’s burial was held in Louisville. It was heartbreaking carnage and Ali’s career’s penultimate battle. Holmes had sparred with Ali in the beginning of his career. When Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire, 1974’s infamous “Rumble in the Jungle,” it may have been his finest victory. He trained with Ali before to that fight.

That evening, there was no passing of the baton from mentor to apprentice. Holmes brutally defeated Ali. Holmes sobbed as he carried out the harshness of his professional responsibilities, just as he would do 36 years later at the burial, while his younger charge viciously beat Ali. He looked up to Ali. His hero. This was not a ceremonial event. It was not pleasant to remove Ali from the throne. It lacked romance. It wasn’t ceremonial, where each participant has a specific role to play and is expected to triumph with dignity. It was extremely depressing.

Nearly 18 months later, in the Bahamas, Ali’s final performance was worse. It was a relief when Trevor Berbick destroyed The Greatest’s professional remnants. It wasn’t a torch-passing ceremony. It was a kindness.

Ritual, with its language of seamless, courteous, and willing continuous, is necessary for the observers. The act of passing the torch denotes cooperation, acceptance, and a shared understanding that one’s time has come to an end.