“A champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.” — Serena Williams
In the days since tennis phenomenon Serena Williams announced her retirement, pundits and sports commentators have enthusiastically engaged in the age-old game of debating her status as the Greatest of All Time.
Her statistics have been analyzed relentlessly and measured against her contemporaries alike. As the sport and its technology have evolved, different strengths and skills have become more relevant than others. With nearly three decades of dominance over her sport, the timespan of her career is unprecedented. Comparing and contrasting athletes of different eras is as much an American pastime as any particular sport.
But for those of us firmly in the G.O.A.T. camp, her place in the pantheon — not just of tennis, but of professional sports as a whole — is defined by more than just her performance on the court. Like others who have claimed the status — particularly the first to claim it, Muhammad Ali — Serena has been a transformational player, upending the global image of what a woman tennis player looks like, how she trains and how she plays, how she dresses, and how she behaves.
Even the issue of her retirement itself is following a unique path. Her stunning performance this week at the U.S. Open — which she declared to be her last — has raised questions about her plans for the near future. “I’ve been pretty vague about it, right?” she told The New York Times. “I’m going to stay vague because you never know.”
Like the legend whose name graces the stadium where Serena currently is delivering her captivating performance, Arthur Ashe, Serena is a Black player in a sport that remains dominated by whites more than half a century after Althea Gibson blazed a trail as the first first African American player to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition. And like both Ashe and Gibson, racism has been as formidable a challenge as any opponent across the net. Fellow players, officials, and the media have openly mocked her muscular physique with racist and sexist taunts. She was tested for drugs twice as often as her peers.
Serena has been fearless both in calling out and combating the racial barriers she has faced: after spectators subjected them to racist abuse at the Indian Wells Masters in 2001, both sisters boycotted Williams boycotted the tournament for 14 years. Serena’s exuberant expressions of joy on the court and her adamant repudiation of slights fly in the face of the demure standards of decorum imposed on Black women in the public eye.
She has called out racism off the court as well: her near-death experience after giving birth to her daughter in 2017 — an experience she attributes to systemic racism in the health care system — shone a light on the alarming Black maternal mortality rate. Black women are nearly three times as likely to die after childbirth than white women from preventable complications.
Whether this U.S. Open really is her last, Serena will remain an icon of Black excellence and #BlackGirlMagic. The National Urban League congratulates her and wishes her all the best in the next phase of her inspirational career.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.