Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. The 35-year-old Women’s Tennis Association legend has won 38 major titles and 22 in singles. Her dominance has extended across two decades. She has got a tremendous serve, her ground strokes are extraordinary, and she can play from net to baseline.
She’s also a woman.
This, says Serena, is the reason that she isn’t in the conversation for greatest tennis player of all time. “I think if I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long time ago,” Williams told rapper Common on ESPN:
I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being black, so it’s a lot to deal with – and especially lately. I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago….It’s very challenging because sometimes when things are blatantly wrong and blatantly unfair and blatantly racist or sexist, I just have to go and put on a brave smile and not let anyone know how I feel on the inside so they don’t get that satisfaction even though on the inside I would be dying.
The Washington Post celebrated this: “Her game is based on power and so is her life.”
Michael Jordan is often considered the greatest athlete of all time. He is not the greatest male athlete, or the greatest NBA athlete. He is just the greatest—gender not included. Another great athlete, Serena Williams, made that distinction: “People call me one of the ‘world’s greatest female athletes,’” she wrote. “Do they say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female.”
But why is it that women in the public eye, from movie stars and sports stars to politicians, have their looks continuously scrutinized and evaluated, while their male counterparts are judged on their talents alone?
We live in a society that pretends women and men are treated equitably, but drags individuals for not adhering to gender norms. Women can be world-class athletes, but their bodies are still hyper-visible, shamed, sexualized, criticized and exploited to foster gossip about their personal lives and sexualities.
The attacks Williams has experienced as the result of her status as a rare black tennis player in a white-dominated field didn’t begin or end with a short span of time. It continued with the racialized, sexualized, dehumanizing comments which comes from online trolls and media—nearly impossible to imagine being made about and also are thinly veiled.
As world-class athletes, it obviously makes sense that Serena Williams has some muscles. But this is lost on those who, by bullying Williams over her bodies, simultaneously attack her psyche and livelihood. Think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports just because they are afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive.
It’s true: Williams is black, she is very muscular, and a skilled player as well. But commentators sometimes talk about these qualities in a way that buys into what sociologist Delia Douglas, in an article on the Williams sisters published in 2004 by the Sociology of Sport Online, called “the essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies.” The result is that Williams’s athleticism is attributed to her ethnicity. There is no way around it: The fascination with the size and shape of parts of Williams’s body that have nothing to do with her tennis skills is creepy.
However, the Williams sisters have stood strong and continued to succeed. A number of people celebrate the Williams sisters and it is incredibly positive to see the WTA and numerous advocates publicly take a stance against the verbal abuse of two black women.
Williams has long been a powerful voice for the black community and women alike. In an interview with Good Morning America, Williams shared the empowering way she deals with body-shamers. “I learned to love me,” she told host Robin Roberts. “I’ve been like this my whole life, and I embrace me and I love how I look. I love that I am a full woman, and I’m strong and I’m powerful and I’m beautiful at the same time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
For everything that Williams have achieved in her life, she is profoundly grateful to have experienced the highs and lows that come with success. She hopes that her story will inspire all young women to follow their dreams with steadfast resilience. Williams further says, “We must continue to dream big, and in doing so, we empower the next generation of women to be just as bold in their pursuits”.
As we know, women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw. We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender and also let’s all hope that society will one day change to judge women on their achievements instead of their appearances.
The article was published in Woman’s Era.