An icon, a record-breaker, a supreme athlete. A mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter. A person like any other? Most definitely not. Serena Williams started playing tennis when she was only three years old and started her professional tennis career at 14, 23 years ago. Now she has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, beating Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. She was ranked as world No. 1 for a total of 319 weeks. She is considered to be the top women’s tennis player in the world. She has been named “the greatest athlete of all time”. She and her sister Venus Williams, who is older by one year and also a pro tennis player, are unbeaten in Grand Slam doubles finals, of which they have won 14. The sisters have played both with and against each other, two halves of a famous sibling team and rivalry. In 2017, Serena defeated Venus in the Australian Open final, winning for an Open Era record seventh time. And she was eight weeks pregnant.
Williams has also pursued interests in writing, television, film, fashion, and philanthropy. She has written and co-written several books, including Venus and Serena: Serving from the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving, and Winning (2005), On the Line (2009), and My Life: Queen of the Court (2010). She has appeared as a guest star in several TV shows and movies, as well as taking part in various advertising campaigns and partnering with Nike, Beats by Dr Dre, Gatorade, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., and The Lincoln Motors, among others. Williams has also created her own clothing line, the Serena collection, and consistently pushed the boundaries of on-court fashion with statement jewellery, trench coats, and catsuits. Additionally, there is a Serena Williams Foundation supporting programs for at-risk youth, providing scholarships, building schools, fighting against community violence and domestic abuse, as well as working for a fair justice system.
As if this were not impressive enough, she has achieved all of this in the face of adversity. Williams was born in Michigan but grew up in Compton, California, where she and her sister were trained by their father on public courts. Her family then moved to Florida, where experiences of racism were very much present for the family. Williams’s rise through the ranks has been accompanied by her unfair share of racism and sexism. The tennis world, a traditionally white space, has not always been kind to the Williams sisters, who must fight against biases and overcome barriers that white or male tennis players never confront. Serena has been criticized for her competitive drive, her brashness, her body and repeatedly been the object of blatant racism and sexism. A cartoon published by Australian newspaper The Herald Sun portrays an image “reminiscent of Jim Crow-era illustrations” of Serena Williams as a baby after her defeat against Naomi Osaka at the beginning of September (Daily Mail 2018). The tennis world has been shaken by the conflict-ridden conclusion to the 2018 US Open, in which Williams lost to Osaka following a code violation for receiving coaching, a point penalty for smashing her racket on the court, and a subsequent game penalty for verbal abuse against the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Williams has denied receiving coaching and pointed to the sexist double standard present in tennis. The controversy revolves not only around the fairness and technicalities of the incident, but also whether she was penalized more harshly for being a woman, and a woman of colour at that. What remains undeniable, is that there are many prominent examples of white male players who have said worse things to umpires on the court than Williams and were not penalized for those comments. What should have been a celebratory moment for Naomi Osaka has become riddled with debate and disagreement, even pushing Osaka to apologize for disappointing the crowd. Serena demonstrated her empathy for Osaka in congratulating and comforting her after the match, turning the situation around with an action at least as impressive as her usual performance on the courts.
Now married with a daughter and 37 years old as of September 26th, Serena Williams has lived a challenging, full, spectacular life thus far. She has faced prejudice and barriers since she started her career, but her grace and strength continue to prevail. She stays dignified and genuine in the face of adversity. She is a fiery competitor, breaking records in her wake. A boss lady with magnificent personal courage. A human with faults and hardships. A queen of the court. A warrior. A champion. An inspiration for us all.
artwork by Sarah de Surville