A couple of weeks ago, I was playing tennis with my sister with one Airpod in my ear, simultaneously attempting to volley the ball while listening to the U.S. Open Livestream. When we heard the commercials end and the announcers’ voices streaming through our headphones, we would run to the bench and avidly watch as Serena Williams battled #2 Anett Kontaveit. Even on my sister’s tiny phone screen, I could see the years of hard work and determination shining through Williams’ game play. After her victory, Williams gracefully recognized the efforts of her competitor, and celebrated her victory with her fans. When asked if she was surprised by her win and her elevated level of play, she simply replied, “I’m just Serena.”
The following day, I parked myself in front of the TV to watch what would be Williams’ final competitive tennis match of her professional career. I was unable to divert my attention away from the screen, so caught up in Williams’ demeanor and her ability to fight for a win. While we were all wildly impressed by her refined skills, intense training, and fitness level, I also noticed that my roommates and I were commenting on elements of Williams that wouldn’t have come up for a male athlete, like “I love her sparkly outfit!” and “How did she get back into such good shape after she had a baby?” None of these comments stemmed from malicious intentions, but instead were rooted in unconscious stereotypes that have been ingrained by our foundationally patriarchal society. As we made these comments, I really started to consider why we were viewing Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, differently than her male counterparts.
Williams has not only been an incredibly successful athlete for over two decades, but she has also served as a strong advocate for gender and racial equity, especially in the sports arena. Throughout her career, she has experienced discrimination in many forms. She has been harassed by racist fans, unfairly judged by chair referees, and scolded by tennis organizations for her outfit choices. In many, if not all, of these instances, Williams has never backed down. She uses her platform to not only to stand up for herself, but also to pave the way for a more equitable future for women in sports.
There are other cases in which the discrimination against Williams was not as overt as the examples above, but was instead passively generated from the foundational patriarchy that is the norm in American culture and more specifically, in professional sports. After her win against Kontaveit in the second round of the Open, she followed “I’m just Serena” by saying “Well, I’m a pretty good player.” This level of confidence should be expected by one of the world’s greatest athletes, right? Well, in some critics’ opinions, Williams’ response was considered arrogant and disrespectful to her competitor and to the reporter. This is a contradiction that women often face – when we are self-deprecating or self-loathing, we are encouraged to be more confident; but, when we recognize our accomplishments, we are considered arrogant and encouraged to be humble. Would the same be true for a successful male athlete, who had spent years refining his skills and cultivating his career? Absolutely not. When strong women exhibit confidence, it is rarely accepted and often criticized. Despite these challenges, Williams continues to acknowledge her skill and maintain her confidence in the face of her greatest critics.
Furthermore, Williams has acknowledged the double standard that she has faced throughout her career. When she is competitive and determined, the media describes her as “fierce,” “aggressive,” and “powerful.” While these all seem like they could be positive attributes, especially if they were used to describe a male athlete, they’ve been spun in a negative light. Where men have been called “passionate,” Williams has been called overly emotional or in a “meltdown.” People have also tried to turn Williams’ ambition and drive for success into a negative storyline, pressuring her to choose between her career and her family. Williams has noted that she is often asked how she manages to maintain a mom/work balance – a question that is nary asked to male athletes and fathers.
I find Williams’ grit, determination, and confidence a powerful source of inspiration for all women, both athletes and non-athletes. Williams has created a legacy for herself both within and outside of the tennis world, as an advocate, entrepreneur, and leader. I hope for a more equitable future for women in sports and in society, which has been made more possible through the impact of Williams. I am lucky to have experienced the power, hope, and grace that makes her Serena – one of the greatest athletes of all time.