By Jess Washington
Those that know me personally know that I used to play tennis competitively. From age 9 to 20, tennis was the only sport in my life. And real tennis fans know that most tennis professionals commit to the sport in their teens, for the stress the game puts on your body makes it (typically) a young person’s game. That’s why watching Serena in her last game was so inspiring last night. I think a lot of us as women, as Black people, as mothers, as athletes, as entrepreneurs watched her with such admiration.
Just a girl from Compton
From the beginning, I always saw something different about Serena. In all fairness, I initially was obsessed with her big sister Venus Williams who made her first US Open final in 1997 at the tender age of 17. Like me, Venus was tall, a teenager, slender and had a great net game. Serena was also a 14 year old professional at that same time but was not getting enough wins to surpass her sister’s attention.
But my first year seeing Serena dominate as a tennis super star was in 1999, the same year she won the US Open women’s singles title. She beat powerhouses like Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and runner up Martina Hingis. This was also the first time we saw the Williams sisters as a force to be reckoned with, for they walked away from that same year’s tournament with the women’s doubles title. Maybe others didn’t know it, but I knew that this was just the beginning. There have been teenage Grand Slam champs before, but not with the POWER that Serena displayed. Venus was strong too, but you could just look at Serena’s physique and know she hit hard! Every serve, every shot. This was the game changer.
And during this time, I was ranked high in my district and was looking to obtain a full scholarship to college. Like many players of color in predominantly white sports, you endure your fair share of blatant racism. It’s just the unfortunate that exists. But when I saw the Williams sisters, they helped me feel safe. They helped me gain confidence that a girl that looked like me could…. effortlessly at that! Just like the Tiger Woods effect on golf, I think it’s fair to say the Williams sisters created a phenomenon, pulling more and more Black kids to the tennis court. Simultaneously they greatly impacted the rising popularity of women’s tennis.
The Reign of Serena
Fast forward 10 years and Serena is ranked #1 and will come to hold that for 319 weeks along with a joint record of 186 consecutive weeks. At this time she had broken the record for most prize earnings in a year at $6,545,586. She also was a huge reason tennis became more visible to the everyday person. Viewership for professional tennis skyrocketed during this time. Not only was she drowned in endorsement deals, you began to see other major celebrities like Tiger Woods and Beyonce cheering her on at her tournaments. Williams has 23 Grand Slam titles under her belt, 5 of which she won that year. It was basically at a point where if Serena was in the tournament, Serena was going to win the tournament. So much so that a few years earlier in 2003, she was booed at the French Open and walked away from the semi final, defeated and in tears. But tennis fans around the world would come to “put some respect” on Serena’s name, for she had plans to ensure her legacy on and off the court. Because of Serena’s reign she has forced the tennis world to recognize those who came before her. Her and her sister Venus are the primary reasons Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson (first Black woman to win Wimbledon) is invited back to the club to view the tournament, like all the other champions. Her activism was prominent throughout her career by funding tennis camps for kids in her hometown of Compton and investing heavily into various programs advocating success for women of color. Another tennis legend, Billie Jean King, received criticism for stating that “Williams should focus more on tennis and less on all the other amazing things she is doing.” Williams simply responded and told the world (and King) that she will never stop her activism.. Especially for women that look like her.
Fast forward another 10 years. In 2017, Serena Williams is married to Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian and has a beautiful daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. The health complications she endured due to her daughter’s birth catapulted her advocacy for Black women’s maternal health. In 2018, Williams launched her clothing line, S by Serena, which gains more success year after year. This is no surprise considering her collaborations with companies like Nike & Puma, not only allowing her hands-on experience in design but also acquiring 30 million in the process. Although she’s found success in fashion, it always came along with unfair criticisms. Like in her debut after having her daughter at the 2018 French Open, she wore a full length cat-suit (for health reasons) which offended officials of the tournament so much they banned the ensemble. And she was not the first woman to wear a catsuit at a Grand Slam, but she was the first Black woman to do so. Notably, Serena also gained headlines in 2018 during her US Open finals against Naomi Osaka. She was accused by the umpire for cheating with her coach Carlos Ramos, and received a code violation. Immediately, Serena defended herself and demanded an apology from the umpire. “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life! I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.” As you can imagine, since the age of 15, Williams has received insults, microaggressions and discrimination in the tennis world. Now at the age of 37, and on record the most successful tennis player in the Open era of tennis, she deserved more respect than that. Serena stuck to her guns, which subsequently led to a tearful win by default for 21 year old Naomi Osaka, as the crowd booed the umpire’s decision to call the game due to the dispute. This was a pivotal moment for both players. It would be Williams last Grand Slam finals appearance, but the half Haitan-Japanese born Osaka would go on to prove her prowess at the very next Grand Slam, winning the Australian Open.
All Hail the Queen
Serena Williams will be only 41 years old on September 26th and then would have a career spanning over 25 years that most would kill for. Her most recent success off the court would be her $111 million venture capital fund for Serena Ventures. Williams told NYSE that this will fund founders with diverse points of view. And this business she created is not only formidable in the venture capital world with 16 unicorn startups, but it also employs 78% BIPOC. She and her husband even have their daughter Olympia in the game, making her the youngest person to own a pro sports team by appointing her as an investor for L.A. ‘s Angel City soccer team. Williams also told Vogue magazine this past August that she fully intends to focus on more on motherhood. As a mother of two myself, I totally get the constant balancing act of quality time with family and time investing into your business ventures. For me, it makes Serena’s success all the more aspirational.
As we see so many give Serena much deserved praise for her accolades over the years, I sit by like a proud cousin. While it’s obvious to see how she’s paved the way for Black tennis stars like Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka, I hope she knows how much she inspired so many others who may or may not have ever picked up a racket. It’s her strength and perseverance that resonated the most for me. The fact that she had to have it even when she was hurt. It’s these moments in life that make us stronger.
So we all must say farewell to the Queen of the courts… but just like in 1999, I have a feeling that we will see her reign again.