Serena has always been herself, allowing others to do the same


Sitting at one of Serena Williams’ press conferences at the 2019 National Bank Open in Toronto, I remember thinking, “Wow. I probably wouldn’t even be in this room without this woman. As a black woman in sports media, my interest in watching and covering women’s tennis, a sport I have grown to love, is a direct result of the impact of Venus and Serena Williams.

Seeing the heavily dotted black and brown faces in the crowd at this year’s August event and throughout his career, I often reflect on the stark contrast between those optics and the tennis of 30 years ago. . I wonder if, watching the stands at the US Open, Serena really understood how much her presence has transformed the face of tennis.

“You just can’t overstate the size and influence she had on so many people,” her husband, Alexis Ohanian, wrote in a social media post ahead of the US Open. “And for what it’s worth, as far as I know, she has no idea.”

Serena appeared to end her competitive career on Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, in front of another packed crowd, and it looks like the reality of her importance is just beginning to set in.

What seemed to many in white elite tennis circles like the pipe dream of a delusional black family in Compton, California in the early 1990s, has manifested itself in the greatest sports story of all time. With 23 Grand Slam titles and a mountain of other records and damage, Serena has more than dominated the traditionally white country club sport. For many, she planted and watered the seeds of possibility that our wildest dreams might not be so crazy after all.

For black people, for women like me, his impact has meant so much more. In a 2017 segment, black American sports analyst Shannon Sharpe described Venus and Serena as “sacred” to the black community and truer words could not have been spoken. In a global system where black men and women in predominantly white spaces often feel pressured to conform to a standard of whiteness, they have always been unapologetically black.

Starting with the beaded braids they wore early in their careers, a tradition deeply rooted in African culture worn by little black girls around the world, the Williams sisters sent the message that their relationship to their black identity was healthy. . Serena’s dark skin shimmering in the sun and stadium lights around the world, alongside an endless stream of white opponents over the years, sent the message to many that they too belong.

Serena wore her pride in her black identity on the pitch as if it were a badge of honor, not to make a political statement but through a total and complete lack of shame for who she is and where she comes from. When shamed for her naturally curvy figure, she worked with designers to create outfits that accentuated and complemented her curves on the court.

Where success, fame and wealth tempted other black athletes and personalities to try to transcend race, she remained authentically herself. His dark self. In doing so, she gave others permission to do the same. Athletes like Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka continue to express how much of an impact she has had on them and their careers is beyond words.

Serena expressed her emotions on the pitch whenever she felt them, even when many saw it as rude for a woman. She twirled elegantly after her many victories, and spoke with grace, good humor and humility. She even learned to speak French. She has lived her tennis career outside of anyone’s boxes.

Her father, Richard Williams, once compared Serena to a pit bull. “Once she grabs you, she won’t let go. Serena plays anger better than any woman or man I’ve ever seen play tennis,” he said. She was only 11 at the time, in the shadow of her pioneer sister Venus. “She’s so strong and hits the ball so well… Serena will probably be a better player than Venus. It’s not to compare my daughters, but she will be.

This prophecy, like so much of what he predicted for his daughters, came true. Serena’s last match lasted three hours and five minutes, the longest US Open match of her career. It’s clear she didn’t want to let go. Although we all hoped she could have continued in the tournament, ultimately the result didn’t matter. It was a gift after 25 years to still be able to see her play.

Wearing sports earrings spelling out the word ‘loved’ in her last game, it’s clear her relationship to the game is different from most athletes. From childhood, she was freely loved by her parents, not based on her performance but because she was Serena. Observing the failures of other tennis parents, it was a principle Richard Williams believed in deeply, as expressed in his autobiographical book, “Black and White: The Way I See It.” This unconditional love gave him the freedom to fly to the highest peaks in sport. It also made it difficult for her to finally let go.

We are not near the end of Serena’s story. She’s committed to growing her family and her many successful business ventures and, if her background says anything, this may just be the start.

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