We have said it before, and we’ll say it again. Every. Damn. Time. Tennis champion Serena Williams is the greatest athlete in the world. Not the greatest female, just athlete. Period. She is a 6x World No.1, and one of those periods she held for a consecutive 186 weeks, tying with Steffi Graf.
She has also won 22 Grand Slam titles, which also puts her on par with previous record holder Steffi Graf, yet we all know Serena ain’t done yet. Serena holds the most major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined amongst active players, male or female. She was the highest paid female athlete in 2016, earning $28.9 million in prize money and endorsements. In December 2015, she was named Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated magazine.
It’s not just the accolades, wins, and sponsor dollars that make her great. It is also the way she has fundamentally changed the entire sport of tennis, and given visibility to black women in a way like no other. From the time Serena and Venus burst onto the scene in 1995 when they were teens, tennis was never going to be the same again, for the better.
They both received backlash for their playing style, body shape and unashamed aggressive desire to win. But the criticism has never stopped Serena from proving her haters wrong. She won’t waste time getting angry at the press or lashing out in interviews. She saves all that energy for her on-court performances, and diffuses hate with her signature gracious demeanor.
As such, she has become a powerful and formidable role model for up-and-coming athletes, as well as young women who live under the banner of pressure telling them to conform to a certain standard. If there is anything we can learn from the life of Serena Williams, it is that conforming doesn’t bring success.
In an essay for Net-A-Porter’s Porter Magazine, as shared by Guardian.com, she talks about the importance of “dreaming big” and why she never chose to accept second best. She is open and honest about the barriers she has faced, but also explains how she used those as launch pads to continue her path to greatness. Serena addressed her essay to “all the women who strive for excellence”.
“When I was growing up, I had a dream. I’m sure you did, too. My dream wasn’t like that of an average kid, my dream was to be the best tennis player in the world. Not the best “female” tennis player in the world. I was fortunate to have a family that supported my dream and encouraged me to follow it. I learned not to be afraid. I learned how important it is to fight for a dream and, most importantly, to dream big. My fight began when I was three and I haven’t taken a break since,” she said, giving a nod to her parents, and especially her father and former coach, who fought (literally) to teach his daughters to play tennis in the iconic city of Compton, at a time when it was ridden with gang warfare and violence.
He showed his daughters how to endure cruel taunts as they were young girls, and clearly that has developed into a powerful muscle exercised regularly throughout Serena’s career. Although the famous sisters were supported by their family, Serena recognizes there are far too many women in the world who are routinely discouraged from being ambitious.
“Too often women are not supported enough or are discouraged from choosing their path. I hope together we can change that. For me, it was a question of resilience. What others marked as flaws or disadvantages about myself – my race, my gender – I embraced as fuel for my success. I never let anything or anyone define me or my potential. I controlled my future,” she said.
However, one of the issues she could not always control was equal pay. There are numerous sports where women are not paid equally, but tennis is one of the few major sports where women do get equal pay in certain tournaments, thanks in part to players like Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Venus Williams.
“When the subject of equal pay comes up, it frustrates me because I know firsthand that I, like you, have done the same work and made the same sacrifices as our male counterparts,” she said, yet in some cases, women have to go above and beyond, or reach the completely unattainable level of “perfection” before even being considered somewhat equal to men.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the US presidential election of 2016 when Donald Trump’s endless amount of flaws (shady business history, scamming people out of money, rape and sexual assault cases, shocking and derogatory comments toward women and minority groups) were given an easy pass compared to Hillary Clinton’s emails and the multi-million dollar tax-payer funded investigations which found nothing incriminating or illegal in any way. But we digress…
The type of sexism Serena and other female athletes become subjected to, apart from the physical criticism, is the way their successes and level of greatness are categorized by gender in a way male athletes do not experience.
“Women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw. People call me one of the “world’s greatest female athletes”. Do they say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female. We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender,” she said.
You KNOW she is on point with that one!
In a recent interview with Oscar-winning artist Common, Serena talks about racism, criticism, being a black woman in a sport dominated by white men and women, as well as the acknowledgment of how her gender has stopped her from being recognized as the greatest athlete in the world.
“I think if I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long, long time ago. Like six, seven or eight years ago. Any kind of man. White, black, it doesn’t matter. If I was a man it would have been a different conversation a long time ago. I think being a woman is a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with,” she said.
In true signature Serena style, she is not one to just point out a problem and just leave it at that. Similar to the way she used negative criticism or taunts to fuel her hunger for success on the tennis court, she writes an encouragement to other women as a sign-off in her essay.
“It is my hope that my story, and yours, will inspire all young women out there to push for greatness and follow their dreams with steadfast resilience. We must continue to dream big, and in doing so, we empower the next generation of women to be just as bold in their pursuits,” she said.
To hear from the the world’s greatest athlete, watch her full interview with Common on The Undefeated, below: