Serena Willams announced her impending retirement from professional tennis in Vogue magazine on Tuesday. As we celebrate her greatness and all that Williams has achieved on the court – the 23 major singles titles, the four Olympic gold medals, the 319 weeks at No 1 in the world rankings – I think it’s important to not skim over all that she had to endure off of it and the inspiration she’s given to Black girls in particular.
I remember when my daughters Imani and Baby Sierra were a little younger and I was watching a segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter. They were in the family room with me and not really paying attention until they overheard then-ESPN commentators Jemele Hill and Michael Smith discussing the onslaught of body shaming, slander and general criticism that Serena was being bombarded with. My daughters both stopped what they were doing and began listening intently as it was reported that Serena had been accused of being “too manly”. One tennis coach had said that he didn’t want his players to look like Serena, others were saying that her butt was too big, some were still criticizing the beads that she and her sister Venus wore when they were younger. Other critics said that Serena had the wrong body type for tennis and therefore wasn’t fully realizing her potential on the court.
I can still hear the questions from my daughters: Why do they keep talking about Serena like that? Why are they so worried about her body and what’s wrong with her body anyway? She’s the one winning and beating everybody so obviously, they should try to have bodies like Serena right? And didn’t Serena beat that Sharapova girl like 20 straight times already? So why do they keep talking about her like she’s actually her big rival? If I beat you 20 straight times, you are not on my level. They better leave Serena alone.
I remember being amazed at how personally my young daughters were taking all of this. It was like they were defending someone they knew personally. At the time, I don’t think they even followed tennis that much. But from that point on, they followed Serena and rooted for her to win every match.
In my book We Matter: Athletes And Activism, I reached out to both Hill and Smith since my daughters were so affected by the criticism Serena was receiving. We discussed everything that both of the Williams sisters had to endure on their journey: the criticisms by the media, how their father, Richard, pushed them to greatness and the racism and hate he had to endure, the double standard that Serena always had to deal with and how that is a reflection of the larger society’s double standards for Black women.
“There is always going to be a certain conversation around Serena to delegitimize who she is and what she has accomplished,” Hill told me. “How they have body shamed Serena has definitely had an impact on how Black women view ourselves. … There are definitely a lot of positives and a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the success and dominance of Serena and Venus.”
Serena showed Black girls like my daughters that they have to be confident and proud of themselves, because society is not always going to embrace or encourage their Black Girl Magic or their Black beauty.
When Serena C-Walked in victory at Wimbledon after winning Olympic gold, or when she balanced the Wimbledon plate on her head, when she was wearing the beads, and even with her outfits, she was thumbing her nose at all of her critics and walking in defiance. She was saying something along the lines of: “I’m proud of who I am, proud of my body, proud of where I come from and I am going to be me no matter what you think. And I’m going to dominate in a sport you think is not meant for me.”
That was a message to Black girls everywhere that they too didn’t have to conform and could be who they were in spite of society attempting to force onto them their standard of beauty for gaining their acceptance.
Some may think I’m overstating Serena’s influence but remember historically how Black women have been ridiculed in the US for their lips, skin tone, hair, body type and nose, while America has held skinniness, white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes as the standard of beauty. In contrast, Black women have had their self-confidence, self-worth and self-pride attacked by mainstream America for decades. “Serena became an activist for Black Beauty,” Smith told me. “And the fact that this is something she even needs to be an activist for is tragic in itself.”
So while the media were sniping away at Serena with these attacks, she was posting pictures of herself in bathing suits or fitted dresses or wearing a catsuit while dominating on the court. It sent a message to Black girls and Black women everywhere that you are beautiful just the way you are.
Serena also sent a message that you can speak your mind and stand up for yourself by boycotting Indian Wells after suffering racial abuse in 2001. She revealed the depths of her pain in a 2015 essay for Time magazine announcing her return to the California tournament after a 14-year absence. “The false allegations – that our matches were fixed – hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair,” she wrote. “This haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”
Not to mention her going public about almost losing her life after a blood clot scare while giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia. Serena shed light on not only the health risks that can come with childbirth, but how maternal mortality rates are compounded by racial bias and mistreatment of Black women, too often resulting in tragedy. If an elite athlete who is known worldwide is having trouble getting the proper care, what does that mean for Black women at all levels of society.
Serena’s impact has far exceeded all of her accomplishments on the court. She has become an inspiration for Black girls and Black women everywhere to always stand up for yourself and to never allow any critic to destroy your self-confidence and self-worth, to dominate the competition and shine despite those who say you don’t belong. Many Black women of all ages will continue to find strength and inspiration in Serena long after her playing days are through, and that’s what truly makes her special.