Serena Williams insists she has no immediate plans to retire. Yet she appears to have begun a gradual walk toward the final phase of her tennis career while amping up the next chapter in her life.
Earlier this week, Williams announced she was withdrawing from the WTA Tour's finals in Singapore. This marks the second year in a row that she closed out her season at the U.S. Open.
She may not be ready to bow out, but 2017 could be the start of an extended curtain call.
Before losing in the third round of the Rio Summer Olympics, Williams told AFP (via the National) that she had no immediate plans for retirement:
"I love what I do every day and enjoy being on the court. I enjoy competing. I just don’t see a time when I say I don’t want to do this anymore."
Melissa Isaacson of ESPNW wrote in June that Williams' subtle descent from dominance began after her stunning loss to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open.
"We didn't realize it at the time, but a heartbroken Williams' missed shot at rare history signaled the onset of more changing times. Williams, who has captivated and enthralled tennis fans for the better part of her 21-year career, has come earthbound quickly since last September..."
|Serena Williams' Last 4 Years|
|2013||82 matches||78-4||won 11 titles|
|2014||60 matches||52-8||won 7 titles|
|2015||56 matches||53-3||won 5 titles|
|2016||44 matches||38-6||won 2 titles|
In September, Williams spoke with Sky Sports' Charlotte Bates about why she has no definitive plans to retire: "If I'm losing I'm going to figure out a way to win, so I can't sit here and say that would be it...Health issues can be tough. I have been dealing with a lot of health issues since Wimbledon and that has been really frustrating. I told Venus (Williams) that it ruined my Olympics."
According to the WTA, Williams has played fewer matches each year, every year since 2013. The number of titles she's won has gone down, too. She won just two this year, Wimbledon and Rome.
With Margaret Court's record of 24 Grand Slam titles within reach, barring serious injury, it's unlikely that Williams will retire before eclipsing that mark.
"Williams has carefully planned her career, having breaks at various points. Some said she could not be a part-time tennis player and still win, but these periods of rest look to have served her well," wrote John Lloyd for the Daily Mail. "Williams is now only two Grand Slam titles away from Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. With that challenge, there is no way she is going to lose her motivation."
Her decision to withdraw from Singapore and concede the year-end No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber is another sign that Williams' priority is to go into the 2017 Australian Open healthy enough to win.
So don't expect to see Williams at too many stops this year. Why should she? She's already secured a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the record books and a few American history books, too. With her status as legend tucked away in her pocket, the only thing left to play for is more Grand Slams.
So look for Williams to chase Slams as long as possible. Meanwhile, expect to see less of Williams on the tour and more of her on Instagram, concert stages and perhaps in movies.
After all, she's in her mid-30s, which makes her a senior citizen in tennis. However, the mid-30s is a prime time to start a second career.