Serena Williams didn’t just revolutionise tennis; her determination to fight against racial discrimination will continue to inspire generations of Black women, argues writer Tiwa Adebayo.
Imagine for a moment: it’s the 2003 Wimbledon quarter-final, and a young Serena Williams is working her magic against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. She’s coming back from a set down and eventually leaves the court victorious. Classic Serena. There I am, a whiny five-year-old, estrace and premarin screaming to be picked up. Eventually, I catch the attention of my aunt, who scoops me up to point me towards the box and says: “That’s Serena Williams playing. You should always support her – she’s important.”
I obviously didn’t get it then, but I do remember being spellbound by Williams’s performance. And 19 years later, her speed and precision still leave me reeling. Since 2003, the world has changed immeasurably – but Serena Williams is as important today as she was back then. It’s for this reason that her retirement, which she announced earlier this week, came as such a shock.
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For Black women like me, growing up without seeing many people who looked like me in popular culture and media was just a fact of life; when I did hear stories about Black people, it was through learning about the slave trade in school or in Blue Peter appeals for the starving children in Africa. Williams, however, provided a refreshing change.
Throughout the early 00s, she was everywhere – and crucially, she was being celebrated for her success. Since her tennis debut in 1995, Williams has won 23-time grand slam singles, four Olympic gold medals and is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time.
I remember playing tennis with my dad on a family holiday to Turkey in the late 00s where, for the duration of our match, local passers-by clapped and shouted ‘Serena! Serena!’ at me. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being racially profiled in the most flattering way, but I do know that being compared to Serena Williams felt euphoric at the time, especially after years of unwanted hair touching and offensive questioning on European holidays.
Of course, Williams’s success hadn’t shielded her from racism, but the way she handled the prejudice levelled at her taught me invaluable lessons. I didn’t realise for a long time why she refused to play at the prestigious Indian Wells tennis tournament, often known as the ‘fifth grand slam’. I eventually learned that both Serena and Venus had chosen to boycott the tournament after receiving a ton of racial abuse from the crowd in 2001.
Learning about that moment in her career came as a rude awakening; it taught me that status and skill don’t preclude you from racism. But more importantly, it really highlighted how unfounded and pathetic racial bullying is. If tennis fans could berate the most skilled player of a generation because of the colour of her skin, that could only be a reflection of them – a really vital lesson to anyone at risk of racism in everyday life.
Her eventual return to the Indian Wells tournament was, in quintessential Serena fashion, victorious. Fourteen years after facing one of the most painful moments of her career, she returned to raucous adulation, breezing past her opponent in straight sets. That match represented so much more than just a sporting win; it was symbolic of her enduring victory over racial abuse and an important reminder that success is always louder than prejudice.
Williams and her career have meant so much to me because she is and has always been unapologetically Black. In a world that often makes it seem as though Blackness and success are mutually exclusive, she is a shining example of what is possible. Racism can be a footnote in an epic story of achievement –not a main theme or chapter.
Williams embodies the whole ‘strong is beautiful’ idea and that’s helped me, as an amateur athlete,to become OK with my own body image. It’s partly because of Williams that I dared to apply to the University of Cambridge; seeing how she navigated predominantly white institutions gave me a role model to follow, albeit through the hallowed halls of academia.
An entire generation of Black girls have grown up knowing nothing other than her unwavering brilliance – the effects of which are already evident with the likes of Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka, who have followed in her footsteps.
My aunt was absolutely spot on all those years ago. Serena Williams is and will forever be one of the most influential Black women on the planet.
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