Sport

They couldn’t touch her: how Serena Williams became a rare legend

Only in America could Serena Williams happen. Only in the US could this particular amalgam of style, determination and edge take form: a black female Jehovah’s Witness from Compton, who persevered in the face of racism, sexism, illness and family tragedy to unapologetically rewrite the history of a sport predominantly owned, played and watched by affluent white people.

The origin story nearly three decades on reads like a tall tale, a fever-dream yarn too fantastic to be true: a father idly channel-surfing from his easy chair until coming across a tennis tournament, awestruck by the $40,000 cheque handed to the winner, eyes widening at the vision of opportunity taking shape in the faint glow of the tube. The words rang through Richard Williams’s head: “I’m going to have two kids and put them into tennis.”

Venus was 10 and Serena was nine when Richard – with his inimitable blend of Don King ambition and Bundini Brown mysticism – first declared that Venus would be No 1 in the world. Serena, he assured, would be even better. One day they would play each other for the Wimbledon title. He was summarily dismissed by the sport’s gatekeepers and the global sporting press as a clownish stage parent. But in time every last prediction, every impossibly bombastic proclamation, came true. If anything he undershot it.

You’ll be reading lots about this real-life folk tale in the coming weeks after Serena’s first-person essay in Vogue, published on Tuesday, which set the stage for her retirement from competitive tennis and suggested the US Open – where she lifted the family’s first major title as a braided 17-year-old phenomenon in 1999 – will be her farewell event. The deluge of plaudits and tributes is already in full flow and will only mount as the season-ending grand slam in Flushing Meadows draws nearer.

All of these must be approached with the appropriate scepticism. Not unlike Mohammad Ali’s sanitised trajectory from enemy of the state and champion of the marginalised to universally celebrated and corporate-approved icon, Williams fought her way on to the stage amid resistance, derision and criticism from all corners. In time Serena’s importance became stupidly obvious, an undeniable cultural truism. But let’s be mindful that many of the appreciations during her valedictory will come from the same gatekeepers who resisted her ascent. What top champion in any sport has received even a fraction of the coded criticism that Williams endured for the bulk of her career?

The receipts are everywhere. And the sniping certainly didn’t end after Williams’s greatness moved beyond dispute through her holding of all four grand slam titles simultaneously in 2003, an achievement so rare it became eponymously associated with her. An open letter in Tennis magazine from Chris Evert in 2006 that, in dubious terms, doubted her commitment; a withering 2007 assessment by Pat Cash declaring her washed up; a breathtaking 2009 screed by Jason Whitlock that demeaned Williams in sexualised, animalistic language so wildly inappropriate it reads like satire. A federation official one day, the sport’s broadcasting commentariat the next.

Serena Williams celebrates defeating Maria Sharapova at the 2013 French Open final.
Serena Williams celebrates defeating Maria Sharapova at the 2013 French Open final. Photograph: David Vincent/AP

Like Tiger Woods, she has brought people into the orbit of a sport who never would have bothered to watch a tennis match. And she blazed a path for a new generation of African American stars, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend and Coco Gauff, who are no longer cast as outsiders on sight.

Malcolm X said in a 1962 speech: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Those reassessing Williams’s extraordinary narrative from positions of privilege may be tempted to downplay the double burdens she has overcome with the brand of grace and composure we’d only been taught about in classrooms. But in a society haunted from inception by racial division, Serena remained one step ahead of the antagonism and bigotry that followed her every step of the way to inspire millions, transcending sport past Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Lionel Messi into the rarefied air of Ali, Wilma Rudolph and Jackie Robinson.

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How fortunate Williams was to find a binary platform – the ball is in or out – where not even the elemental forces aligned against her could deny her what’s rightfully hers, a justice not afforded far too many Black women in American society. They cannot touch her. And they never could.

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