Column: One last salute to four of our greatest athletes
To call them four of the greatest athletes in the history of women’s sports is a bit of a slight.
Let’s just call them four of the greatest.
In what should be a melancholy, reflective time for all sports fans, Serena Williams, Sue Bird, Sylvia Fowles and Allyson Felix have decided it’s time to go, almost in unison, leaving behind a gaping hole that the next generation will be hard-pressed to fill.
Because these four icons are more than just stellar athletes, though their accomplishments on courts and tracks around the world leave no doubt they are — and were — among the very best to play their sports.
You can also make a pretty open-and-shut case that they are leaving a bigger mark away from the arena.
They inspired young people to follow in their footsteps.
They fought tenaciously when faced with injustice.
They never surrendered to whatever obstacles were thrown their way.
They refused to buckle to the status quo.
They haven’t just make sports better. They have made the world better.
Williams has not set a firm date for her retirement from tennis, though it appears the end will come at the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 with her 41st birthday approaching.
It’s probably too much to ask for one more Grand Slam singles title, and Williams certainly doesn’t need it to bolster her legacy.
She’s already got 23 of ’em, more than anyone except Margaret Court, whose accomplishment comes with an asterisk since many of her 24 titles came before the open era transformed tennis.
With the possible exception of Arthur Ashe, no tennis player made a bigger impact on society at large than Williams.
She is not just an entrepreneur, a fashion trailblazer, an investor in women’s business ventures. She’s not just an athlete who raked in enormous sponsorship deals and claimed a prominent place in pop culture.
She’s the one, along with big sister Venus, who carved out an entirely different path for Black athletes in a white-dominated sport. When Serena saw racism and intolerance, she never shied away from calling it out. Some in the media described her as prickly and obstinate, but those are familiar code words for any person of color who demands to reshuffle a deck that’s always been stacked against them.
“She’s transcended tennis and become a leader on many important cultural, social and gender issues,” Chris Evert wrote in a text message to AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich. “She has lived an extraordinary life, and will undoubtedly continue to crash the glass ceiling in the future.”
Even as she prepared for life after tennis, Williams spoke out on an issue that male athletes such as Tom Brady don’t have to fret about — the delicate balance between parenthood and a professional career.
Williams wants to have another child, but she has no desire to take on the enormous sacrifice it would take — especially at her age — to return to tennis after enduring the physical toll of a second pregnancy.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair,” Williams wrote in an essay that was released by Vogue magazine and also posted on Instagram. ““If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”
Felix, who captured 30 track and field medals over her Olympic and world championship career, can certainly relate to the demands of being a female athlete and a mother.
She endured a complicated pregnancy, leading to an emergency C-section to deliver her now 3-year-old daughter, Camryn. She also ran up against the prejudice of a male-dominated hierarchy when Nike wanted to dramatically reduce her sponsorship terms without providing any guarantees that her deal would still be there when she was ready to return to the track.
Felix knew that wasn’t right. She decided to speak out. Nike would eventually relent, altering contracts so female athletes weren’t penalized for having babies.
“I’m super-proud of all the stuff that’s happened on the track,” the 36-year-old Felix said before her final competition at last month’s world championships, which, in an interesting twist, were held not far from Nike’s Oregon headquarters.
“But I think my biggest accomplishments are the things that didn’t necessarily get a medal.”
Bird and Fowles won plenty of medals and championships during their groundbreaking careers on the basketball court.
But, like Williams and Felix, they also stepped up when injustice reared its ugly head.
For the 36-year-old Fowles, who grew up in a poor Miami neighborhood with a single mother, it took some time to find her voice as an activist. She was reticent to speak up in 2016 when several of her teammates on the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx protested against police brutality.
But four years later, with the nation embroiled in racial turmoil over a white Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, a Black man, Fowles was ready to take a stand.
“I think 2020 was that turning point where we all felt like we had to say something,” Fowles told ESPN, “because if we didn’t, then we were not doing justice to what needed to be done.”
Bird came out as gay five years ago at the urging of her now-fiancé, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Since then, they have both been vocal advocates for gay and transgender athletes, while also lending their support to causes such as Black Lives Matter, voting rights, women’s rights and equitable pay.
Now, with the WNBA season — and her career — winding down, the 41-year-old Bird is at peace with her decision to retire from hoops. No doubt, she’s not retiring from life.
“I think the legacy that she’s left on the sport, and that she’ll be leaving on the sport, is enormous,” former Seattle Storm teammate Lauren Jackson said. “But I’m really excited to see what she does next.”
The same can be said of Williams, Felix and Fowles.
But before they’re gone, one last word from the rest of us.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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