Serena Williams: Serving for Black Lives

When it comes to the politics surrounding Serena William’s you couldn’t ask for a more vibrant story. Is this historical fiction or a heroine in the saga for good against evil? Simply put there is no diplomatic or poetic way to express that people root against Serena because she is black. Because of this, the subconscious pathologies of racism, sexism, and misogyny have been unfortunate hallmarks of her career. We could have a conscious field day discussing Serena Williams and her impact on race relations and body image. Why no matter what Serena accomplishes she always seems to be short-changed by the racist infrastructure of tennis.  Even her fanbase at times is guilty of maltreating her demanding she win every time she sets foot on the court. These demands are an effort to protect her from the minimizing white gaze we have seen scrutinize her over the years. Although the intent is noble, it still places unfair expectations and unique pressures on Serena and further extends the hand of oppression. Even Billie Jean King, 12 time Grand Slam Champion and Women’s tennis advocate has spoken up on behalf of Serena: 

“Bingo: people love her, they want the best for her, and they love her story.” But it has not always been like that during the tournament. I have seen that she doesn’t always get the whole crowd behind her like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and I think it’s different that she’s a person of colour. Women also just don’t get the attention, enthusiasm or the sponsorship money that the men do. Serena is an amazing athlete, she’s so powerful, and she has the most beautiful serve in the world. The rhythm is poetry in motion, and she is and will continue to be a great role model for everyone — and particularly for women of colour — and now that she has a daughter, she is for mothers too.” – Billie Jean King

Serena William celebrates her victory in Indian Wells against Kim Clijsters in 2001. ( 4-6, 6-4, 6-2)

This is expressly manifest in her faux-rivalry with Maria Sharapova. When Sharapova defeated Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final, she would become the heralded champion. Sharapova would be celebrated because of her skin tone and not her athletic ability. She was immediately considered the antidote to Williams and the fresh coat of white paint the tennis world was desperately seeking. Her European standard of beauty would also privilege her to earn more than Williams at one point. Under the guise that Sharapova is a more marketable athlete, “marketable” being a euphemism to conceal racist ideology. However, even with all the considerable delusions from white privilege, Serena would provide the ultimate reality check. Serena leads Sharapova 19-2 and has not lost a match to her since 2009. Serena has robbed her of 3 grand slam finals and 1 Olympic gold medal in the process. Serena now boasts 23 Grand Slam singles to Sharapova’s 5. But the nail in the coffin would come in 2016 when Sharapova would test positive for the banned substance meldonium.

Serena Williams hoists the trophy after defeating Maria Sharapova in the 2015 Australian Open final. (6–3, 7–6)

Despite the apparent undoing of Maria Sharapova; the media at times seems to enjoy taunting Serena with loaded questions, racist dog whistles, and sexists inquiries. As Serena was recently asked this questions in a post-match interview:

I have been waiting about 14 years to ask you this question. After the 2004 Wimbledon match with Maria, I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump on his L.A. golf course, and he said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly alluring and then he came up with his incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her supermodel good looks. My question is: Have you ever been intimidated by anyone on a tennis court, and what are your thoughts about that occurrence?”- Simons

Serena’s response was effortless, stoic and exacting just like her service game:

“I honestly don’t have any thoughts about that. I can’t say I have been intimated by anyone. That’s all. That’s it.”- Serena Williams

Serena Williams gets fired up as she fights back from a set down to claim a victory against Camila Giorgi at Wimbledon 2018. (6-3,4-6,4-6)

The fact of the matter is Serena is the most decorated tennis player alive male or female. Unfortunately, it seems as though every time she breaks a record or sets a standard her achievements are registered unfairly on a sliding scale. Most notably in 2017 when Serena Williams played her big sister Venus Williams in the Australian Open final. Serena would win the match earning her 23rd Grand Slam singles title. With this victory Serena would become the unprecedented player in the Open Era, surpassing Steffi Graff’s 22 Grand Slam singles titles. A record-breaking feat she managed to accomplish while she was pregnant! No sooner than Serena takes the thrown as “The Goat,” Margaret Court’s tennis career comes to life like a gargoyle touched by alabaster moonlight. Ironically she was not being entertained when Steffi Graf held the Open-era record and was considered “The Greatest Ever.”  Margaret Court won most of her slams before the professional “Open-era” began in 1968. More specifically only of  11, her “24” slams were won during the Open-Era of tennis. Bringing Margaret Court up is really a desperate attempt for the tennis world to maintain their great white hope. For many primitive and archaic tennis fans, Margaret Court is the last guard to protect what they consider to be the “purity” of the sport. The fact that Margaret is an outspoken racist and homophobe is just the vanilla icing on the cake.

Serena Williams in a moment of introspection as she fist pumps after another victory at the 2013 U.S. Open.

This is why when Serena is on the court she is literally and figuratively serving for black lives. Playing for so much more than a win she is a representation of the culture playing for marginalized people everywhere. A heavy cross to bear, her matches are an act of everyday activism, and her victories give hope where there was none.  Like a rose that grew from the concrete streets of Compton, California; Serena has defied the odds. She has managed to outsmart, outwit and outplay racism and sexism at every turn. Serena proves time after time that when it comes to the winner’s circle, she is the circumference both on and off the court. Whether Serena wins another slam or not there is no denying she is the greatest ever to play the sport. With her 23 Grand Slam Singles titles, tennis has a new unapologetically black queen, ushering in an era of equality, and poised on a precipice to rule with an iron fist.

Norwood LeVough



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