By Marion Andrew Humphrey, Jr.
Mark this year as Serena Williams’. She just won her 20th Grand Slam title (2nd of the year), making her arguably the best tennis player of all time — men or women.
Serena Williams is world treasure, not just a national one (I mean, she has a home in Paris). She’s arguably the greatest woman athlete of all-time, and in my opinion, encroaching on the Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan considerations of greatest ever period. Why, you ask? Hard facts. In tennis, she’s put together a resume in singles and doubles very few can compete with. Her twenty majors top all Americans. The Serena Slam—held all for majors at once. 13-0 record in doubles major finals with sister Venus (don’t even get me started on older sister). And, domination of highest level of competition any great champion has ever faced plus over 20 years in the game.
In those 20 years, however, she’s encountered a more complicated response to her greatness. Her father, who openly shared that his desire to have two more children came about after watching a tournament winner take home a $40,000 check in 1980, received backlash in the sisters’ early years for his audacious prophecies about their future success. Verdict on those prophecies: not one lie was spoken. That backlash in combination with tennis’ country club, anti-black racism had crowds harshly rooting against them from day one, even on their home courts.
In 2001, after older sister Venus defaulted from a semi-final match against Serena in Indian Wells, CA—the closest premier tournament to the Williams’ hometown of Compton, CA—the crowd heaved racial slurs and boos towards Serena during the entirety of her championship defeat of Kim Clijsters the next day. Until earlier this year, Serena had not returned to Indian Wells since 2001, which made her glorious return, fueled by a successful charitable campaign for the Equal Justice Initiative, even more remarkable.
And don’t forget the constant body-shaming she and sister Venus have faced throughout their careers. Just last year, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation called them the ‘Williams Brothers.’ And after celebrating her record 19th major win with jumps of joy, men’s tennis player Ivo Karlovic (don’t know him? No worries; he hasn’t done much) tweets a line associating her jumps with the causes of earthquakes. Note, these racist, sexist comments have not been exclusive to white men neither. The oh-too-often excused barbershop critique of Serena’s physique has bled into our radio stations, our sports commentators, and our media. Brothas, as much as anyone, contribute to the misogynistic, transphobic, sexist, and racialized comments that police her body and bring harm to young black girls everywhere whose natural shapes are more well-thought out by the creator than Serena’s more slender white competitors.
Fortunately, Serena absorbs criticism as fuel to prove her haters wrong. She exemplifies what it means to be unbothered and seemingly lives by the late great Maya Angelou’s adage “still, I rise.” And rise she has. At 33 years of age, she’s the oldest Australian Open champion, the oldest number one ranked player, and she continues to set herself apart from her competition. She accepts her French Open trophies speaking French, her Italian Opens speaking Italian. And she holds the number one ranking as only she can: undisputedly. As equally of importance, she continues to leave her mark in a charitable space, a historical space, and she never fails to lift up her own close-knit family—one she cherishes and supports.
Since Venus’ win at the 2008 Wimbledon, Serena’s been the only American to win majors—10 of them—carrying the most decorated tennis country solely on her back. In comparison, the last American man to win a major was Andy Roddick in 2003. There’s no doubt that the insurgence of young American women talent such as Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, both recent major semifinalists, and Taylor Townsend, former world number one junior girls’ player, who are all women of color can be directly attributed to the Williams’, especially as the men fail to produce the same level of top-notch talent.
Serena Williams is the greatest athlete competing today and maybe ever. She’s transcended tennis like none before her and has done so with an unfair share of critique. She’s brilliant, intelligent, beautiful, fierce, charismatic, and dramatic—all things that make for a true champion. But, it’s her resilience and drive that ranks supreme. Not to mention, she’s unplayable at her best. Serena shows us that one can be the queen of something through hard work, not bloodline. Serena Williams: The Queen of sports.
Photo: Serena Williams/Instagram
Marion Andrew Humphrey, Jr. is a Little Rock, Arkansas native, DC resident, writer and organizer. Writes about criminal justice, community safety and organizing, mental health, and all things black, free, and beautiful.