We should now put all doubts aside: Serena Williams is one of the best athletes in the world. No other sport has seen anyone like her.
It was not merely confirmed when she won her 21st Grand Slam trophy at the 2015 Wimbledon tournament. Nor was it that she completed the Serena Slam for the second time in her career and now holds all four Grand Slam titles at once. These are merely exclamation points on a long career. To simply compare her to other tennis greats would do a disservice to her legacy though. She dominates a global sport in multiple categories. She has competed in the Olympics as long as any other legendary track & field star or swimmer or gymnast. Not many athletes can claim to have longevity like her, and fewer can say they remained in top form throughout their careers.
She has won Grand Slams titles in three different decades.
Serena won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999, and continues to rack up trophies well into the 2010s. You know who else won a championship in the ’90s and still remains competitive? Tim Duncan. The majority of Serena’s opponents from when she started have retired or fallen out of the top rankings. She continues to dominate a new generation of tennis that sees her as an icon.
She has a winning record against her greatest rivals.
In her career, Serena has developed rivalries against several generations of players, and has come out on top in nearly each one. (No, this does not include Maria Sharapova. Losing 17 times in a row to someone is the opposite of being competitive.) She came on the scene with players like Justine Henin and Martina Hingis, and would emerge with a winning record against them. Other players like Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport started out having their way with the Williams sisters, but eventually Serena would gain the better record against them.
Her greatest rivalry though is with her own blood: Venus Williams. It can be argued that if she did not have an older sister who eclipsed her at first, Serena may have never been pushed to become legendary. But at the same time, Venus is one of her biggest supporters. Their closeness as sisters trumps anything that happens on the court, and they prefer to be on the same side of the net playing together.
She and her sister can be credited with changing women’s tennis.
While men’s tennis would be rocked by the likes of Roger Federer, Serena and her sister changed the way women’s tennis would be played. They would elevate the physical demands required to be competitive on their side of the sport. With their blisteringly fast aces, rocketing ground strokes and deadly placement of shots, their arrival shell-shocked a generation of players. Instead of valuing the old way of trading shots back and forth for 10-20 rallies, they came in with the mentality to dominate opponents and quickly defeat them. This meant exploiting angles that would catch opponents off guard, and playing the game in a way that would let them gain the physical and mental edge. Winning tennis requires attacking your opponent’s confidence, and both of them are great at that.
The next generation of tennis players would use the book that the sisters wrote. They would train at the gym and practice on the courts just like the sisters. They would develop the same instinct for hitting difficult to return shots and looking-to-end points quickly. But the sisters wrote the instruction manual, and have adjusted to it. They have also learned how to dig deep within themselves and find the mental fortitude needed to remain competitive.
She has dominated women’s tennis in both singles and doubles.
Few can claim to have won all four Grand Slam titles and a gold Olympic medal, let alone in two categories. Serena has not only achieved a Golden Slam in singles― which means winning all four of the major tournaments and the Olympics― but she also did this in doubles with Venus. The two are tactically different, and for her to have mastered both is an extraordinary feat. She also won mixed doubles twice in 1998, a year before her first singles Grand Slam title.
She has boosted ratings for women’s tennis.
When the sisters started to dominate Grand Slam finals, TV networks woke up and realized tennis had stars on its hands. The 2001 U.S. Open final between them was viewed more than the Notre Dame-Nebraska football game being shown at the time, and prompted CBS to air the U.S. Open finals in prime time ever since. Serena still continues to have that effect― anytime she makes the finals of a Grand Slam, especially right now as she is chasing history, ratings will go up. Anyone who questions if women’s tennis is as popular as the men’s side should ask Nielsen for the numbers.
She has altered the complexion of the sport.
Serena’s win at the 1999 U.S. Open ended a long period when Althea Gibson was the only Black woman to win at majors. What Serena has done since then is show that not only could Black women have a staying place in the sport, but could also own it. The dominance of Serena in tennis destroys the idea of it being mostly a sport for white people. The increase of Black tennis players as well as other minorities can partially be attributed to her years in the spotlight.
What’s more, tennis is an international sport. The Grand Slams take place on three different continents, and other tournaments happen in many different countries. Serena being a player of color on a large stage challenges the sport to look more like its audience, and forces a world filled with anti-Blackness to deal with a superstar who looks like her.
She is challenging the way we think about women in sports.
In many ways, Serena’s career has defied and defined what is considered acceptable of athletic women. From her unapologetic fashion choices to pacing her career on her own terms, she has rebuffed the expectations of women in tennis and the double standards that do not hold true for men in the sport. Her sense of pride and refusal to dial it down for those harboring prejudices serves to upend an order that still sees women’s sports as a novelty.
With her being a Black woman, she challenges those inside and outside of the sports world to check their racism in addition to sexism at the door. Even those who claim to be accepting of women show their limitations when they have to acknowledge a Black woman as the best player in the sport. As evident by the dishonest attempts to use her body to question her athleticism and womanhood, the simple fact is she has not been given the respect she deserves.
Maybe if she wins the U.S. Open in September and gets the elusive Calendar Slam, New York City will throw her a parade like they did for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team.
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