LONDON -- A little more than an hour after Serena Williams departed from Centre Court at Wimbledon on Saturday, after losing a third straight Grand Slam final for the first time in her career, a reporter asked her to react to comments made by tennis great Billie Jean King to the BBC earlier in the tournament.
"There have been a few comments made in the last couple weeks by people like Billie Jean King that maybe you should stop being a celebrity for a year, stop fighting for equality and just focus on the tennis," the reporter asked at the end of Williams' postmatch news conference. "How do you respond to that?"
The 23-time Grand Slam champion, fresh from the most lopsided loss in a major final in her career -- a 6-2, 6-2 dismantling by Simona Halep -- responded exactly as one would expect.
"The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I'm in my grave," Williams said to the woman. Then she spun her chair toward the door, stood up and walked out of the room. It was an appropriate mic-drop answer to an intentionally flawed question crafted to bait Williams into giving such a response.
Serena: Halep played 'out of her mind'
Serena Williams says Simona Halep played amazing and there wasn't much she could have done. She also thanks her team for all the support.
At no time had King, a lifetime champion of gender equality and equal pay, suggested in her commentary that Williams stop "fighting for equality." King later took to Twitter to clarify as much. But what King had suggested -- that winning a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title would be easier if Williams "stop all this insanity" and "give up all these peripheral things ... to continue working on her fitness and get refocused" -- is worth addressing, as well.
Since Williams returned to tennis from maternity leave in March of last year, she is the only woman on tour to advance to three Grand Slam finals in that time. As her platform has grown along with her fan base, she has elevated conversations around maternity leave on the WTA Tour, supported African American women in business and launched a direct-to-consumer fashion brand that celebrates diversity. Williams has asserted throughout her career that diving headfirst into interests outside her sport fuels her tennis and fulfills her desire to grow as a person as well as a player.
She is still here, still hungry for more, still competing and carrying the sport on her shoulders -- largely because the "peripheral things" have kept her from burning out on the 24/7 nature of tennis. And because she continues to succeed on the court, she has an enormous platform from which she trumpets causes she is passionate about.
That doesn't sound like a lack of focus. That sounds like perspective.
In 2006, after Williams won only one Grand Slam title in a three-year span, 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN television analyst Chris Evert wrote an open letter to Williams in the May issue of "Tennis Magazine." In it, she admonished the then-24-year-old Williams to focus less on outside interests and more on her game, asking, "Do you ever consider your place in history?"
Evert has since said she regrets penning the letter, unaware of all that was going on in Williams' life during that time, but Evert says she didn't want Williams to look back on her career with regrets. In late 2003, Williams' oldest sister, Yetunde Price, was murdered in a shooting in Compton, California, and Williams spent much of the following two years battling injuries and depression. She has said the pursuit of passions outside of the game helped her heal, as well as rekindle her love for tennis. In the 13 years since that letter was published, Williams has won 16 Grand Slam titles, while only adding to her portfolio off the court.
On the court, Williams now owns 23 Grand Slams, one shy of Margaret Court's all-time record. Williams returned to competition last year, only six months after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, through an emergency cesarean section that led to life-threatening complications that kept Williams on bed rest for six weeks. As she healed, she increased her training to rebuild the fitness and game that earned her those titles, worked to regain her mobility, power and serve, and fought through illness and injuries to advance to the final of three majors in the past 12 months.
Yet we're still asking Serena Williams if she cares enough.
If the past year has proved anything, it is that she is still one of the best players in the game and still motivated to become the all-time greatest, despite it becoming all the more difficult for her to win a Grand Slam and handle the mounting pressure as she chases history.
And Williams cares about history. Make no mistake: She wants to win another Slam and is going to continue to search for ways to get there. Since her return, Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has said Williams doesn't want to reach Court's record. She wants to surpass it -- to lift the bar Court placed at No. 24 and set it down somewhere only Williams has been.
So far, the pressure to do so has buckled her when the title is on the line. Last year's Wimbledon final, which she lost in straight sets to Angelique Kerber, ended with Williams in tears in her on-court interview, telling the crowd, "For all the moms out there, I was playing for you, and I tried." The US Open final, which unraveled into bitter chaos in the second set when Williams was penalized a game after an extended argument with the chair umpire, ended with both Williams and her opponent, first-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, in tears.
But while Williams' performance on Saturday was reminiscent of last year's Wimbledon final, her postmatch demeanor was disappointed yet calm, as she appeared all tournament. In her media conference, she praised Halep, talked about adding more tournaments to her schedule and said she is proud of her effort over the fortnight and excited to continue to work toward her goals.
This doesn't feel like a comeback any longer. It feels like the norm.
"Getting to the top is often fun. You have nothing to lose, especially if you've never been there. It's like a great climb," Williams wrote in a recent essay for "Harper's Bazaar," in which she revealed that she sought counsel from a therapist and sent a note of apology to Osaka in the months after last year's US Open. "Sustaining that for years and years takes a lot of work. You don't want to fall because you know what it's like to be at the top, you know how it feels. At least I do, I know how it feels, how you want to stay there, how you want to get back there."
But what if she doesn't?
What if Williams continues to seek Grand Slam titles, competing deep into the second week at majors while pursuing outside endeavors and finding joy in her sport, but never equals Court's all-time total? Does it matter? Hasn't Williams already secured her place in history? And for her, that legacy is about what she is doing and saying off the court as much as what she is accomplishing on it. So shouldn't we stop asking her to abandon one in service of the other?
Williams is not a player who is flaming out in the first week at majors or showing up to matches unprepared or uninspired. She might not be the lethal finisher she once was or seem as invincible on the sport's greatest stages, but she has played three exceptional tournaments in the past year, and we should believe her when she says she has more to give.
"I just have to figure out a way to win a final," Williams said after Saturday's match.
As she heads into the hardcourt season with seven more matches under her belt, a healthy knee and a slate of warm-up tournaments scheduled before the US Open, Williams turns her focus to her next opportunities, knowing that whether on or off the court, one might lead her toward history.