Serena Williams – cultural icon creating change on and off court

Serena Williams has retired from tennis leaving a legacy as the most dominant and influential women’s player in the game’s history. 

Over more than two decades, Serena, who will be 41 next month, used her indomitable spirit to obliterate opponents and record wins, earning 23 Grand Slam singles titles among 73 career singles championships. She spent 319 weeks as the number one player in the world and returned to the top spot after nearly 15 years — a record. She also won four Olympic gold medals, among other feats.

Those extraordinary numbers aside, though, it is Serena’s inspiring ascension from the mean streets of Compton, California, to becoming one of the greatest in tennis that has made her a pop culture icon and inspired Black girls across the globe to take up the once-exclusive sport.

Serena played with the grit of her upbringing. Her zeal for the sport resonated with Black America and Black girls in particular, sparking a wave of young talent that rose to the professional level with many picking up the game recreationally.

Before announcing her retirement, she wrote in Vogue magazine, that she hadn’t thought about what the lasting impact of her success would be. “I get asked about it a lot, and I never know exactly what to say,” she said. “But I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful.”

Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka seems to have followed the path Serena laid.

“Her legacy is more than her being Serena,” Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, said to Tennis World magazine in October 2021. “I started playing because of her. I’m sure there’s so many other girls that started playing because of her, so she literally built champions. And I think passing it down is how the newer generations get inspired.”

Serena’s strength and control on the court are powerful. Her reactions have ranged from exploding in profane rage at officials to displaying grace in rare defeat.

Off the court, she carried herself with aplomb, often reflective in her responses to probing questions, and at times, exposing her raw emotions. Neither she nor her sister Venus had a smooth ride to their place atop tennis, though. Criticism abounded — about their appearance, their style of play, their sometimes flamboyant tennis outfits and their outspokenness on racial problems, among other issues.

Yet, Serena remained undeterred. In 2000, she pulled out of the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina in support of the NAACP’s call for a boycott over the Confederate flag flying above the statehouse. The next year, she endured racist jeers at the BNP Paribas Open tournament at the California Indian Wells resort, leaving her in tears in her locker room. She boycotted that event for 14 years.

In 2018, she called out sexism after being deducted a point for smashing her racket in frustration at the U.S. Open; women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King lauded her for exposing a “double standard” toward female players.

Serena is also an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in 2014 launched an venture capital company, which has now invested in over 60 companies where three-quarters of its portfolio company founders are from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Hilary Beard, who wrote ‘Venus and Serena: Serving From the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving, and Winning,’ a 2005 instructional  book with the sisters, said that Serena’s conviction to stand behind social justice issues was a driving force for the tennis star.

Serena transformed the tennis world with her play and conviction, Beard said, despite the obstacles in front of her. “I’m talking about an elite white, exclusive tennis world that attempted to exclude this Black woman. At the time she started, she and Venus were adolescents and young women when they first bore the brunt of the force of the tennis world against them,” the author said.

“They didn’t conform to any expectation of the white tennis world or that elite, exclusive society. Serena stood in her brilliance. She stood in her Black beauty. She stood in her body that did not conform to a European standard of beauty.”

At the height of her profession, Serena did something unique: She gave birth to her daughter, now 4. She wrote in Vogue that focusing on being a parent was one of her motivations in leaving the sport.

“That’s part of the power of her as a role model,” Beard said. “At this point in her life and her career, I’m sure she wants to win her 24th Grand Slam. But I imagine she’s made peace with her tennis legacy. Whether the sportscasters and all the traditional arbiters of the sport agree, the rest of us know: Serena is G.O.A.T. And my guess is that she’s far more concerned about inspiring young women and girls, and especially low income Black and brown ones, and marginalised ones. And maybe especially one called Olympia.”

Adapted from an article first published by NBC News.

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