Even If She Never Hits Another Ball, Serena Williams is the GOAT
A conversation with historian Tera Hunter about the greatest woman ever to play the game of tennis--what she overcame, and where she is going--and why Serena's legacy is intertwined with sister Venus
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Earlier this week, tennis superstar Serena Williams announced in Vogue magazine that she will retire after this year’s U.S. Open. Williams’ primary reason is her desire to have another child. As she points out, biology is the enemy here, not age: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” Williams writes. “I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.” It has been a difficult decision for a woman who “first picked up a tennis racket” at age 3 and has devoted herself to excellence in the sport ever since.
You will still see Serena out in public as a businesswoman, thought leader, and public person. Her commitment to excellence is legendary: watching Serena play live, including sitting up close during warmups at the U.S. Open, are some of my most cherished athletic memories. But instead of just writing about her myself, I reached out to Princeton University’s Tera Hunter, an award-winning historian of African American women’s and family history who knows the big picture. Hunter is the author of Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (2017) and To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (1997), both from Harvard University Press.
I know Hunter as a scholar–but I also make sure I have her Twitter feed up during Grand Slam women’s matches: she’s one of the best and most knowledgeable women’s tennis commentators I know. So when this big news hit, I naturally reached out to her.
Claire Potter: Thanks for joining me in this space, Tera. Serena Williams has announced that she will retire after the U.S. Open. As my favorite Twitter tennis expert, tell me: why has she mesmerized us all these years?
Tera Hunter: I was a tennis fan before Venus and Serena showed up, but they really exploded my world when they did. I have attended the U.S. Open consistently and witnessed how it has been transformed by their presence, which I think is symbolic of their overall impact on growing the sport. The U.S. Open is a Grand Slam tournament, but it felt much smaller until they arrived, and year by year, the attendance grew and became far more diverse, in large part because of them.
And yet, it took a long time before the Williams sisters had proven themselves enough for a largely white sport to embrace them and for the crowds to cheer for them even above competitors from other countries.
CP: I agree. So, as you say, before Serena, there was Venus: when I watch them together, I always think of my own sister because they seem so close. And their careers are linked. Serena’s accomplishments have, in many ways, outstripped motherhood and entrepreneurship (via Serena Ventures)—but did Venus pave the way for what her sister has achieved? Could Serena have been the champion she is without Venus paving the way?
TH: I have a soft spot for Venus as an older sister myself. She was the one I rooted for just a little bit more. She was supposed to be the better player and started out that way. But Richard Williams, their father and coach, predicted that Serena would ultimately be the best. Serena had to work harder just to make herself seen when all eyes were on Venus. She sneaked herself into tournaments that Venus had been officially enrolled in. (Serena reminds me of little brother Michael, who had to beg his way into the family group that became the Jackson Five and then became the biggest star.) That is the characteristic drive and determination that made her such a tough opponent throughout her career.
Neither sister would have been as great or achieved as much without the other practicing on the other side of the net, standing next to her, lifting her up, and pouncing on whoever was lucky enough to beat one and then face the other in the next round. Serena was very insightful about her big sister’s impact in the Vogue essay in which she announced her retirement. She studied Venus’s mistakes to make sure she did not repeat them.
They were each other’s biggest rivals and strongest supporters. To be sure, Serena was not gracious about losing to anyone, including big sis. Unfortunately, we really don’t know how much more Venus could have achieved had she not been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, in 2011. It is truly remarkable how much Venus was able to recover and continue to play. In fairness, Serena also surpassed her sister with genius, hard work, and force of will.
CP: In 2001, there was an ugly incident at the Indian Wells tournament: Venus withdrew from her semi-final against Serena with a knee injury, and then Serena went on to beat Kim Clijsters in the final. But when Serena took the court against Clijsters, the crowd booed and catcalled her, goaded on by false accusations that Richard Williams had manipulated the match by persuading Venus to fake an injury.
We haven’t seen such an open display of racism since. But how does the way Serena has been treated and still is treated by white people—even though she is a star— illuminate the world that all Black women navigate?
TH: Racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, classism, etc. are all an unfortunate part of sports, which are a reflection of all that transpires in the rest of society. Some sports are worse than others, however. Tennis is an elite country club game that has been reluctant to open up to plebeians—all of us who are not upper class and white. Ora Washington, Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe broke through–with a lot of resistance. There was a sprinkling of other Black players like Yannick Noah, Chanda Rubin, and Zina Garrison.
CP: I’m glad you mentioned Zina Garrison. She was one of my favorite players, and I remember being shocked to learn in 1990, when she made the final at Wimbledon and was beaten by Martina Navratilova, that despite having turned professional as the top-ranked junior player in 1981, she had played for a decade without even having a clothing contract.
TH: Zina is Exhibit A for how much Serena and Venus changed the sport. Garrison was ranked as high as four in singles but did not achieve the level of fame or fortune as other top white women players on the circuit, all of whom she beat at some point. Sponsors were blunt in saying that she did not have the “right” image and did not sign her for endorsements (Martina also got similar cold treatment because of her sexuality.) Venus and Serena landed major endorsements early–in Venus’s case, it was before she even turned pro.
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