Yep, we’ve unapologetically called it. Serena Williams is the world’s greatest athlete. Normally when people conjure up names to fit that prestigious description, they say men such as Michael Schumacher, Eric Cantona, Tom Brady, Andrew Agassi, Babe Ruth etc etc.
We’re not sure why women often get overlooked but that changed the minute the mighty Serena Williams stepped onto the international tennis stage at the age of 17. Yes, 17, and she is now 33. For an athlete in a solo sport (or any, for that matter, but especially a solo sport) to have such a long career span, that is a remarkable and impressive feat in and of itself.
She has been the world’s number one female tennis player on 6 separate occasions, the most recent time being in 2013 which made her the oldest no.1 player in WTA history. Forget Queen Bey, ‘coz Queen Serena’s reign isn’t just evident, it’s dominant.
She is the reigning Australian Open, US Open, French Open and Olympic women’s singles champion. She holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined amongst active players, male or female. Serena has won a total of 35 grand slam titles, 20 of those being singles titles which puts her third on the all-time highest singles grand slam titles in history list behind Steffi Graf and Margaret Court.
With the way she continues to play, there is no doubt she is going to be etched into the history books alongside the aforementioned men when it comes to athleticism and power.
We could go on and on about how badass Serena is, but we should also mention she hasn’t exactly had the easiest time being in the spotlight. Although she is a fierce competitor on the court, away from the bright lights of a grand slam tournament, she has had to put up with plenty of BS from the press and fans all over the world.
She has been bullied by a top sporting official who called her “a man”, yet she continues to exhibit grace and humbleness in her responses. Racism is another disgusting issue she has had to deal with in her career, because you know a strong woman, a strong black woman owning her career and continuing to set the bar high for everyone else in the game is too much for some people to handle.
Thankfully, alongside all the negativity she has endured, Serena has not given up and in our eyes remains one of the few consistent female role models in the professional sporting world who is an example of confidence, success and poise under pressure.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post she let down her guard and talked about racism, spirituality and her body image struggles.
She said she often compared herself to her sister Venus who was always thinner than her.
“It wasn’t very easy — growing up. Venus was like a model. I was thicker. Most women athletes are pretty thin. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I had to come to terms — as every teen and young adult does — with loving myself. I had to find different role models. But my body type is in style now, so I’m loving it!” she said.
The two sisters have both competed together and against each other. And while Serena holds the most wins out of the two, Venus has made her mark on the tennis world in more ways than one. Despite being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, and autoimmune disease, she was one of the top female tennis players to join WTA officials to fight for equal pay checks for female players in a number of grand slams. And for the record, tennis is one of a very few number of professional sports where women get paid equally and that is thanks to people like Venus.
Racism is something that is on the forefront of every American right now given many horrific stories in the news, but it is something Serena has dealt with for many years. In particular, an incident at the Indian Wells tennis tournament back in 2001 devastated her confidence so much that she vowed not to play at the venue again. It wasn’t until 2015 that she decided it was time to put her hurts behind her and go back to the place that caused her much pain.
Serena was only 19 years old and as she was on the court she was bombarded with boos and racial slurs from the stands. Although she put on a tough exterior, inside she was crumbling and wrote an essay for Time magazine about how it affected her behind closed doors and why after 14 years she made the decision to go back and play.
“When I arrived at Indian Wells in 2001, I was looking to take another title. I was ready. But however ready I was, nothing could have prepared me for what happened in the final. As I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendinitis and had to pull out. Apparently that angered many fans,” she wrote.
“The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”
She went on to say how it affected her father, who prepared his whole life for his daughters to have a successful life and prosperous career, yet watching Serena have racial slurs yelled at her reminded him of growing up in the South.
“It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality,” she admitted.
It was encouragement from her mom that made her want to eventually go back to that place.
“I was raised by my mom to love and forgive freely. “When you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in the heavens may also forgive you” (Mark 11:25). I have faith that fans at Indian Wells have grown with the game and know me better than they did in 2001,” she said.
Serena added to this sentiment by telling The Huffington Post she recognizes the tennis association has changed so much and she owed it not just to herself but to her fans to go back and set an example, especially given the cultural climate surrounding certain racist incidents hitting news headlines over the past few years.
“There was something there that I wanted to face; that I wanted to overcome. There are a lot of things that we as Americans are going through, especially right now. I just feel like it’s time to stand up. It wasn’t just for me, it was for everyone. The sport has changed. I feel like people have changed,” she said.
An encounter with a fan after Indian Wells this year made her realize how important coming back was.
“I was at a gas station at Indian Wells and a parent came up to me and said, ‘my kid loves you.’ His kid was 11-years-old. I thought it was great. This is a little person who has a life and goes to school and has friends and he’s a fan. I have missed 14 years of coming out here. That’s when I knew I had made the right decision,” she said.
Her faith has been a pivotal part of her journey, as she outlined in her second Vogue magazine cover back in March (that achievement in itself is a major coup for most women in the world today). In the Vogue interview she revealed that after reading Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk To Freedom’ biography she knew the importance of forgiveness and it deepened her faith in God.
“I always talk about forgiveness, but I needed to actually show it. It was time to move on,” she said.
Through a career with many ups and downs, her spiritual health has been just as vital as her physical and mental wellbeing.
“Physically you need to be great, emotionally you need to be stable and I need to have a good connection with my spirituality. When I have those three things together, I feel good and do well,” she told the Huffington Post.
The way that she has dealt with the lobs and volleys flung her way over the course of her career both on the court and off prove she is a woman who is willing to be vulnerable, be strong, be authentic, and most of all never give up.
“You can be down in life, but you can overcome things based on the way you think and how you set your frame of mind.”
She isn’t about to slow down her tennis career any time soon, but told Vogue she doesn’t have anything to prove anymore, she plays because she loves it. Aside from her athletic prowess, she promotes her own clothing line on the Home Shopping Network, funds a school in Kenya, and works with with the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent clients.
“I feel like I have a desire to be better than ever. I am never, ever, satisfied. I always want to do more, be more, reach a new level. Not just in tennis but in everything I do.”