Serena Williams transcends sport - we're lucky to be living in her time
No demographic more than the black woman has been more marginalised, oppressed and subjugated throughout the country’s 239-year history.
Which is why Serena Jameka Williams, now beyond any reasonable dispute the greatest ever women’s tennis player after capturing a sixth Wimbledon title and 21st major championship overall on Saturday, is transcending sport into a space we’re only beginning to reckon – past the Jordans, Gretzkys and Messis into the rarified air of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.
The 33-year-old now holds all four grand slam titles simultaneously, an achievement so rare it became eponymously associated with her – the “Serena Slam” – when she first managed it more than 12 years ago. Yet she remains the ultimate outsider, hardly less today than when she burst on the scene as a braided teenager nearly two decades ago: a black female Jehovah’s Witness from Compton re-writing the record book of a sport predominantly owned, played and watched by affluent white people.
This is the ultimate American folk tale – and it’s still being written in real time.
Those re-examining Williams’s extraordinary narrative from positions of privilege may be tempted to downplay the double burdens she’s overcome with the brand of grace and composure we’d only been taught about in classrooms. Not in 2015, they say.
Take a look around. Only this week did the Confederate flag come down in South Carolina. Bill Cosby is finally being investigated for serial rape after how many years? Racism and sexism are for real.
And it’s not just the white middle class that’s threatened by an unapologetically strong black female beating them at their own game. Just turn on the radio – For Everybody by Juicy J and Wiz, I Don’t Mind by Usher – for everyday instances of black culture hating on black women.
Let not the knee-jerk deluge of plaudits seduce us into slighting Serena’s struggle. She fought her way onto the stage amid resistance, derision and criticism from all corners. An open letter in Tennis Magazine from Chris Evert (white woman) in 2006 doubting her commitment, a 2007 eulogy by Pat Cash (white man) declaring her washed up, a breathtaking 2009 screed by Jason Whitlock (black man) that demeaned Williams in sexualised, animalistic language so wildly inappropriate it reads like satire. A federation official (white woman) one day, the sport’s broadcasting commentariat (almost exclusively white) the next.
Even on the morning of Saturday’s final, a New York Times story on women’s tennis and body-image issues – which couldn’t have talked around race more if it had tried – intimated that Serena’s competitors aren’t as good because they “choose” not to be, running with the presumption that being muscular makes you less than a woman.
More sinister are the nameless, faceless critics lurking on social media and comments sections, giving voice to a society’s most hateful impulses. What top champion in any sport has received a fraction of the snide remarks that Williams routinely weathers?
It’s never been just about tennis with Serena. Which makes her leverage of her twin burdens, while dominating three separate eras of conventionally attractive women from far more advantaged backgrounds, all the more heroic. How fortunate she was to find a binary platform – the ball is in or out – where not even the elemental forces aligned against her could deny her what’s rightfully hers, a justice not afforded far too many black women in society. They cannot touch her.
So on she goes, winning major titles with a metronomic efficiency, as self-assured today as the 17-year-old girl who fielded a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton after winning her first major title more than a decade and a half ago. And the most preposterous thought is, at 33, she’s better than ever.
Only Floyd Mayweather can offer an adequate, if unlikely, comparison to Serena’s sustained dominance and unapologetic blackness.
Both turned professional in the mid-1990s and almost immediately soared to the top of unforgiving individual sports, where competitors exist in an unsparingly exposed state and all but the strongest of mind and body wash out. Both have gone about their work with a rugged individualism, supplementing divine natural gifts with untold hours of hard work and dedication behind the scenes. Both have passed the litmus test of the greatest champions, winning titles when they’re young and keeping them till they’re old: Mayweather, a world champion for nearly half his life, while Williams has now won grand slam titles in her teens (one), twenties (12) and thirties (eight, a record).
And disproportionately broad segments of America, either privately or otherwise, want both to lose.
Yet the crucial differences between the two most dominant athletes of their generation show Serena’s getting a rawer deal. Mayweather is a serial batterer of women who actively embraces the role of race-baiting pantomime villain in the self-interest of souring the crowd to sweeten the gate, while Serena has done nothing even remotely criminal or even deliberately offensive. All she’s done is win and not be sorry for it. Those hell-bent enough to find character flaws could point to moments of iffy sportsmanship early in her career, especially after losses. Yet she’s made demonstrable strides in that area, which is even more admirable than if she’d been perfect all along because people generally don’t change. Today she’s the exemplar of grace and graciousness in victory or defeat.
Mayweather in recent years has embraced the hashtag-friendly honorific #TBE – The Best Ever – as a self-appointed talisman of his greatness. While such bluster may be more imperative in a trade that demands a greater degree of self-promotion than any other, it’s a superlative that Serena has managed to realize more comprehensively – and with inestimably finer tact.
We are lucky to be living in the age of Serena Williams. Only in time will it become stupidly obvious, a cultural truism, a trajectory not unlike Ali’s path from enemy of the state and champion of the disenfranchised to universally acknowledged icon. Only because the arc of history bends toward justice do we know that, years from now, everyone will act like they backed her all along. But you’ll know better. Because you were there.