Opinion

Serena Williams is more than a tennis great: she showed black women we could be ourselves

“If you can see it, you can be it.”

It’s a phrase regularly preached by sporting governing bodies, educators and those in the media who champion diversity, like myself. Although it’s a cheesy phrase, it is 100% true.

When you are the first of your race, nationality, gender, sexuality or culture to achieve something, not only do you become the face of the country or team that you were representing at the time, but for many, you become the physical representation of everyone “who looks like you”.

So when I think about Serena Williams retiring from the sport she committed her life to – writing for Vogue that she would be “evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me” – I’m tempted to think that her greatest legacy will be the one she continues to build off the court.

There’s no way we can ignore her record: 23 grand slam titles (so far), 14 grand slam doubles titles and four Olympic gold medals to name just a few.

But her greatest achievement has nothing to do with Wimbledon, any grand slam or any tennis racket. Rather it is the way she continues trying to create a world where little girls who look like her and me don’t need to suffer the things she did or feel excluded from the worlds that we often were. As a sports journalist, I understand the journey of starting out in a world where people don’t expect to see you, or don’t always welcome you with open arms.

So the way that Serena and Venus strutted into a world where no one sounded like them and no one looked like them, and consistently proved they had a right to be there, was not only a win for them, but a win for every one of us little black girls who never thought those kinds of dreams were ones we could achieve.

When they told Serena her colourful competition outfits were the wrong colour she found one that was brighter; when they questioned the style or texture of her hair she changed it again; and when they told her that her beautiful black body was too masculine, she got stronger and won even more titles.

Serena Williams at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala, New York City, May 2019.
Serena Williams at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala, New York City, May 2019. Photograph: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

When barbs were thrown, she kept her pride and her dignity. In 2014 Shamil Tarpischev, the Russian Tennis Federation president, derided Serena and her sister Venus as the “Williams brothers”. She called him out as “extremely sexist” and “racist” and continued making history. When just last year Ion Țiriac, the former Olympic tennis player and director of the Madrid Open, claimed she should have the “decency” to step down from the sport due to her “age and the weight”, she was as strong and unflustered as she has always been on court. The denigrators were always there, but they always came off second best. Time after time she has confused tennis’s mostly middle-class audience with the way she stood up for herself. She always felt like one of us.

And many may not know that her commitment to society and inclusivity spreads past the courts of Wimbledon. She was one of the first investors in LA women’s football team Angel City, her family are involved in several charities, and she teamed up with other organisations to protect children during the pandemic.

I think the only person who represents this more than Serena Williams is her friend Lewis Hamilton – another sports superstar who continues to break the rules while taking every challenge in front of them.

We all felt it when Williams said: “It has been said I don’t belong in women’s sports – that I belong in men’s – because I look stronger than many other women do. No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it.”

Here was someone in the public eye, who looked like us, telling us it was OK to be us. Willy T Ribbs, Althea Gibson and Arthur Wharton all walked so that Lewis Hamilton, Serena Williams and Viv Anderson could run. We’ve already seen others, such as Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, follow Williams’ lead, and there will be many more after.

Williams showed us not to allow the racism, the body-shaming or the misogynoir to distract us from our targets. And as a black woman of a very similar age, for me and those around me it was a message felt strongly and deeply – a message that we needed to hear, and a call to action that we’d been waiting for. For us, particularly those of us who loved sport, she was the speaker we needed. And while she may be retiring, tennis’s loss is society’s gain as she continues to remind us of how powerful we are, how strong we are and how capable we are as talented black women.

As one of the greats has said goodbye. I for one say thank you.

  • Natasha Henry is a sports journalist. She is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of Women in Sport magazine

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