There are many names uttered when people talk about the “World’s Greatest Athlete”, but for us there’s only one person – Serena Williams. At this stage, it’s just undeniable. Most recently, she notched up her 22nd Grand Slam title win at Wimbledon, pulling even with Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam record. As of July 2016, she was ranked world no. 1 in women’s tennis for 179 straight consecutive weeks, just 7 weeks shy of (again) Steffi Graf’s record.
Serena also holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined amongst active players, male or female. Do we even need to go on? While she is already described as the greatest female tennis player of all time, we think her achievements transcend just that parameter. Despite her success and ability, sadly she has put up with a trifecta of discrimination much of her career: her body shape, her skin color and her gender.
In a recent Self magazine interview, where she graces the cover, Serena talks about all three of these issues and the amount of positivity and determination really give you a sense of why she has managed to transcend such ugliness thrown her way throughout her career.
The champion ace-hitter says this trait is probably in large part thanks to her father who was both her and sister Venus’ mentor and coach growing up in Compton, California – a location known more for its affinity with famous rappers than world champion athletes. But that’s what Serena does best; subvert the narrative and disrupts the norms to unapologetically make space for herself.
In a neighborhood where gangs were aplenty, her dad Richard Williams would take his two daughters to the local tennis courts and pay kids to heckle them on the sidelines to help them learn to stay focused.
“I think that ended up helping me. My mental game has always been from my dad,” she said.
Once you realize her mental strength was established a long time ago, you begin to understand why the people who try and bring her down by criticizing her appearance don’t have a chance in hell against her.
The ugly teasing from supposedly professional sports people and commentators about her body shape could’ve got to her, but there was a point when Serena realized she loved her body and why it was important to talk about it publicly.
“I love my body, and I would never change anything about it. I’m not asking you to like my body. I’m just asking you to let me be me. Because I’m going to influence a girl who does look like me, and I want her to feel good about herself,” she said.
She’s not the only black woman who has faced criticism about her body in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by white men and women. Ballerina Misty Copeland and gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles have been subject to racist Each of these women, like Serena, have risen to the top of their field and then some, yet they are forced to field constant scrutiny about their physical appearance, rather than being afforded the luxury of being associated with praise about their athleticism in the same way that men are.
One of the most common dismissals about not seeing more equality in sport is the lack of attention, awareness or excitement about female competitions. We heard it all during and after the recent Women’s World Cup which saw the USWNT win their 3rd trophy, yet they are still being paid a heck of a lot less than the men’s national team who have never won a world cup and didn’t get anywhere near the amount of viewers the women’s final match got (which is also now the most viewed soccer match on TV in America). Serena has something to say about the “excitement” criticism:
“Last year, the women’s final at the U.S. Open sold out well before the men’s. Did Roger play in that final, or Rafa, or any man? I think not,” she said, referencing a comment the former the CEO and director of the Indian Wells tournament made. He referred to female athletes as “lady players” and claimed they “ride on the coattails of the men” like Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal. Hmmm, last time we checked, they haven’t set any Grand Slam title records just yet…
Both Serena and Venus have been heavily invested in pushing for equality in tennis, and it is now one of the very few major professional sports in the world which has tournaments that pay men and women the same. The younger of the two sisters says she is adamant about using her voice to continue to raise awareness about equality.
“I have this platform that other people don’t have. I think it’s important, especially as a woman, to stand up for who you are and what you believe in—and not back down,” she said.
As for the racism, her outlook and experiences really embody the statement First Lady Michelle Obama shared at the Democratic National Convention in July: “when they go low, we go high”. Serena has never counted herself out in spite of the world she entered which was not used to seeing the likes of her or Venus.
“I can’t say I am the pioneer because it was Althea Gibson, it was Zina Garrison, it was Arthur Ashe, it was so many people before me. [But] I appreciate being in a position where I was chosen to be a role model. Obviously, being black in tennis wasn’t easy, even in the ’90s,” she says, knowing the power of representation.
Off the court, she is passionate about social justice and education, and helped build schools in Africa and Jamaica. She has also donated a lot of money to the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based organization that helps bring justice to wrongfully incarcerated people, an issue which disproportionately affects minorities in the US.
She is also personally invested in the issue of people who are affected by violence in communities, as her own sister was tragically killed in a gang-related shooting in Compton in 2003. Yetunde Price was a mother of 3.
“All we can do now is help others. It was terrible. If my nieces and nephews didn’t have my mom or us, I don’t know what they would have done,” she says.
She is more than just a tennis champion or a role model, she is a living, breathing, athletic revolutionary who is breaking boundaries constantly. At the age of 35, Self Magazine says she is already at a stage where most other tennis players have seen their best days behind them. But Serena is no where near stopping, she says, so the critics and the naysayers might as well get used to it.
“I am who I am. I love who I am. Just that whole attitude of being strong and powerful—that’s something I can get behind,” she said. And we’re with her on that!
If you haven’t yet had a chance to watch the EPIX original documentary ‘Serena: The Other Side of Greatness’, here is a promo below, where you can get a glimpse into the life of who we consider to be the world’s greatest athlete.