The cover story: What Serena Williams gave the world

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The Cover Story
What Serena Williams Gave the World
By Sean Gregory
Senior Sports Correspondent, TIME

The greatest female athlete of all time—check that: perhaps the greatest athlete of all time—has been thinking a lot about the reason she's vowed to hang up her racket for good.

"Olympia doesn't like when I play tennis," Serena Williams says plainly about her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. When Williams told Olympia, who turns 5 on Sept. 1, that she was soon to be done with the life that made her an inspiration to millions, Olympia's reply was as joyful as her mother's celebrations after so many Grand Slam wins: a fist-pumping "Yes!"

"That kind of makes me sad," says Williams, leaning forward in her chair in the library of a New York City hotel. "And brings anxiety to my heart." No kid understands their parent's absence. But Williams has spent the last few years of her incomparable career tormented by what she's been sacrificing in order to keep going. "It's hard to completely commit," says Williams, "when your flesh and blood is saying, Aw."

Olympia would also like to be a big sister. One day in August, she blew on a dandelion, wishing for a baby sister. "This is what I have to deal with, on a daily," Williams says, with the commiseration familiar to all parents of young kids. And yet choosing this path requires a calculus that superstar fathers don't have to make. Tom Brady, father of three, can retire and unretire at 44; LeBron James, father of three, can sign a two-year, $97.1 million contract extension at 37. "It comes to a point where women sometimes have to make different choices than men, if they want to raise a family," says Williams, who turns 41 in late September. "It's just black and white. You make a choice or you don't."

Biology may have forced her hand, but Williams insists she's at peace with her decision. "There is no anger," she says. "I'm ready for the transition." She's thought about what's next, without knowing how it will feel. Williams will re-direct her curiosity and drive into her investment firm, Serena Ventures. She'll kindle her spiritual life. She'll evolve as a mom. "I think I'm good at it," she says of parenthood. "But I want to explore if I can be great at it."

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