Serena Williams’ Legacy Lives On In Black Girls Like Me
I wasn’t a big sports fan growing up. If someone were to ask me to name five athletes as a kid, my response would have probably been, “Uhhh, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods.” Today, I’d include some basketball players like LeBron James or Stephen Curry but Williams would still be at the top of that list. Williams has forever stayed in my rotation not just as one of the few sports stars I can name off the top of my head, but also as one of my favorite athletes, and favorite cultural figures – period.
In her illustrious career, Serena Williams transcended tennis. And now, as Williams prepares to transition away from playing tennis — she made the retirement announcement official in Vogue this week — I can’t help but look back on the impact she’s had on me, her sport, and the culture.Williams is undoubtedly iconic, from all the records she’s broken (including her own) to her becoming the face of tennis, a sport that was once dominated by white men. Her dominance was always so inspiring to me — she didn’t just take up space in a world full of country clubs and rich white elites, she owned tennis. Serena Williams is tennis.
I remember watching TV as a kid, and when all the children’s programming, like Arthur, WordGirl, and Cyberchase, would turn into afternoon talk shows, like The Tavis Smiley Show and Maury, I would scroll through the channels looking for something to hold my attention. I would land on ESPN and there she’d be, leaping side to side, muscles taut and ponytail swaying. The enigmatic presence of Serena Williams became so familiar to me; her unmistakable signature grunts, the thwack of the tennis ball as it connected with the racket. She was an undeniable force on the court.
I’ve always loved the fact that her prowess was undeniable, no matter how much smack commentators or haters would talk, she was accepting trophies on trophies with sweat still glistening on her skin as proof of her effort. She was a shining example of how if you worked hard and if you kept at something, you could be successful. She’s always been someone who shows that you can succeed in a field even if it’s predominantly littered with faces that don’t look like you, and that you can become an icon on a court that wasn’t built for you. Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff are living examples of Williams’ legacy, and they would be the first to tell you that they wouldn’t have stepped foot on a professional tennis court if it wasn’t for Williams (and her sister Venus) paving the way.
Williams is an icon in color. I grew up watching her, not just seeing her in black-and-white textbooks. From killing it on the court to her multi-million dollar brand deals and business ventures to slaying in black and white in Beyoncé’s music video for “Sorry,” Williams’ status as an influential figure and an icon has long been solidified. In her essay in Vogue, Williams seems to understand her cultural impact, but writes that doesn’t like to think about her legacy — even though she does a pretty good job of summing it up. “I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court. They can play with aggression and pump their fists. They can be strong yet beautiful,” she writes. “I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier. Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis. I admire Billie Jean because she transcended her sport. I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”
Williams also expresses her frustration with the fact that she has to retire in order to focus on expanding her family (she also doesn’t love the word “retirement”), a choice male athletes don’t have to make. The other four athletes I could name off the top of my head were men — men who are never expected to step away from their respective sports for the sake of their family. Some fans are convinced that LeBron will never retire while it’s just expected that when a female athlete retires to start a family.