Serena Williams's greatest triumph: Winning without compromise
It wasn’t all for naught.
Sure, Serena Williams didn’t, in the end, capture the calendar slam. Her 22nd career Grand Slam championship will have to wait, as will her pursuit of Steffi Graf and Margaret Court, and the ability to, unequivocally, call herself the greatest female tennis player of all time.
But 2015 is still, undeniably, a period of great triumph for Williams, and not simply because she rounded out another “Serena Slam,” took home nearly $10 million in prize money and has held down the No. 1 WTA ranking for the entire year. In addition to all of that, on top of everything she managed to accomplish on the court, 2015 has revealed a new pinnacle for how Serena is seen and received.
It’s fair to say that this is the year Serena Williams reached “Beygency” status.
Allow me to explain.
You may remember this Saturday Night Live “digital short” from just over a year ago. Featuring Andrew Garfield, the spot centers around a man foolish enough to blurt out during a dinner party that, while Beyonce is great and all, “Drunk In Love” wasn’t exactly his favorite tune. From that point forward, we see Garfield fleeing for his life, dodging sniper bullets and generally shadowy figures, all the while assuring the world that yes, he still listens to “Baby Boy.”
The sketch resonated for a very specific, but important, reason: While we all love Queen Bey, we can’t help but notice, and chuckle, when anyone reaches that level of universal acclaim — particularly in such a polarized culture. Kanye West? Depending on who you ask, he’s a brilliant iconoclast light years ahead of his time, or a preening egomaniac. Taylor Swift? A crusader for the underdog, or part of the machine herself? Drake? Sure, he’s talented, but is he sufficiently authentic?
The one exception, it seems, is the incomparable Mrs. Carter — singer, superstar, feminist icon, beacon of light in an otherwise harsh, dark world. And sure, as the SNL sketch so charmingly skewers, maybe we’re a little defensive of her, a little sensitive to any criticism. But it’s only because we love her, and she’s so damn talented, and seriously, you saw the “Single Ladies” video, right? I mean, it defined an entire art form!
That’s essentially where we’ve arrived, in the fall of 2015, with Serena Williams. Sure, she fell victim to the upset on Friday, dropping her semifinal to the lightly regarded (but undeniably charming) Roberta Vinci. But even in defeat, I double-dog-dare anyone, anywhere, across this nation torn apart by greed and politics and limitless hot takes, to say so much as a single cross word about her. I love Serena. You love Serena. We all love Serena, and if you needed a reminder, all you had to do was watch all of #SportsTwitter work through its grief, together, in the aftermath of her defeat.
Veni, vidi, Vinci. As Caesar said: I came, I saw, I beat friggin Serena Williams....— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) September 11, 2015
Interview over. I'm going to go cry in a corner now.— Jessica Luther (@scATX) September 11, 2015
Whatever.— flossie bailey (@reetamac) September 11, 2015
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Of course, this outpouring of love, support and, occasionally, protectiveness, began long before the Open was underway in Queens. Earlier this year, when the New York Times attempted to explore the ways in which issues of body image manifest in the world of women’s tennis, the report was roundly panned for uncritically running quotes that suggested there was anything “unfeminine” about Serena’s shape. When Darren Rovell shouted into the Twittersphere that no, race wasn’t really a factor in Williams’ endorsement income, a number of commentators (including some colleagues) rose to explain the myriad ways in which he was wrong.
Never one to avoid the offensive, Williams took to social media to tell the “haters” that she was, in fact, having her eyebrows shaped. Which prompted at least one morning talk show to tout Serena as a kind of conscious architect of her own destiny, eschewing those mere mortals who’d dare deign to shame her.
These defenders are totally correct, of course; Serena shouldn’t have to spend a second of time or ounce of energy defending her body, her appearance, or her approach to anything. And if, in 2015, there remain those who still need convincing that race absolutely plays a role in endorsement income — just as it does in every single solitary aspect of American society? They’re just not paying attention. Willfully so.
So yes, it’s genuinely encouraging that we’ve arrived at a place where a chorus of voices will rise at a drop shot’s notice to support Serena Williams. It’s also quite remarkable because, well, this is Serena Williams! The young upstart who, along with her sister, was berated for having beads in her hair. The woman whose fashion choices have been judged and ridiculed throughout her career. The tennis star who’s been called lazy, unfocused, dishonorable, and beholden to outside interests. Serena Williams has seen every form and fashion of athlete criticism you can possibly imagine. For match fixing. For dating. For dancing.
In a much analyzed moment back in March, Williams returned to Indian Wells, site of arguably her must ludicrous public spat. It was at this site, way back in 2001, that a largely white crowd spent an entire match booing Serena, amid baseless gossip that her sister, Venus, had withdrawn from the tournament not due to injury, but to clear a path for her younger sibling. In an essay for Time, Serena did her best to forgive what happened, while addressing her return to one of the biggest tournaments on the tennis calendar. Still, Serena left no doubt as to the toll the incident took.
“When I was booed at Indian Wells,” wrote Williams, “ — by what seemed like the whole world — my voice of doubt became real. I didn’t understand what was going on in that moment. But worse, I had no desire to even win.”
No desire to win. From Serena Williams. Can you imagine?
Fourteen years later, what happened at Indian Wells seems absurd, even farcical. Letting Serena win? This Serena? The woman with 21 Grand Slams, 69 total tournament wins, an Olympic Gold Medal, and 257 weeks as the world’s No. 1 ranked female tennis in the world? Letting her win?
What the hell was wrong with us?
The answer, of course, is plenty — much of it slotting into the usual bins of racism and sexism. Writing at The Daily Beast in July, Tomas Rios brilliantly broke down how being a “dominant black woman” has subjected Williams to unfair criticism and insufficient reward throughout her career. At The Mary Sue, Teresa Jusino explained why “masculine ideals” lie at the heart of so much of the noise that surrounds Serena. And just last week, Bleacher Report’s Merlisa Lawrence Corbett expounded on the “anti-black misogyny” that has plagued Williams’ career.
Clearly, there is no separating the maddening critiques of Serena Williams from her status as a double-outsider in our white-male-driven culture. It’s something that her colleague and friend, Andy Roddick, took note of during a recent interview with The Observer, saying, “We threw lots of fits on the court. I was a dick a lot of the time, and I didn’t get a quarter of the criticism that she ever got.” Even within the tennis community at large — not exactly a bastion of racial progressivism — there’s been a growing appreciation for the heightened level of scrutiny and shaming that Serena has endured, by virtue of scant more than who she is and where she came from.
But while not everyone can truly understand, or appreciate, the burden of being born outside America’s privileged classes, there is something else, something more universal, that runs through the whole of Serena Williams’ career and public life: An uncompromising sense of self.
At the age of 33, Williams is defined not simply by her blackness, or her femininity, but by her power. I’m speaking here, of course, of more than the mere strength of her backhand. Because a case can be made that Serena’s most remarkable feat has been to listen to the din of disapproval, of second-guessing, of people who claim to know better than Serena how she should train, play, communicate, spend her time … and to pay it all precisely no mind. She refuses to relinquish one ounce of her spirit, her soul, her agency. Don’t like the time she’s devoted to fashion? Don’t expect her to change. Want more information on her injuries, her private life? That’s none of your business. Wish she’d open up and be a little more vulnerable with the press? You’d be wise to scope what she had to say on Tuesday night, after an impressive, grueling, presumably poignant victory over her sister Venus in the U.S. Open quarterfinals:
“It’s 11:30,” explained Serena to the assembled media, after being asked, (we kid you not), why she wasn’t smiling. “To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now. I have to wake up early to practice. I don’t want to answer any of these questions and you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really — you’re not making it super enjoyable.”
Marshawn Lynch, eat your heart out.
That’s the beauty of Serena Williams — how she deals with the unfair expectations, the judgments, the probing and prying, and all the other general nonsense that so many athletes suffer. Robert Griffin III is arrogant and out of touch because he had the nerve to say that he still believes in himself. Bryce Harper is petulant for having the stones to say out loud that yes, he wishes the fans would stick around. LeBron James needs to understand his place as a player, and stop undermining those around him. Serena has seen and heard it all over her 20-year career — much of it far worse than most — and never let it change her. Instead, she’s won, again and again, tournament after tournament, because this kind of unparalleled success remains the best way to explain to the world that Serena Williams knows exactly what she’s doing, and knows it far, far better than anyone else ever could.
Serena stopped winning, suddenly, and unexpectedly, on Friday at Flushing Meadows, and for a moment, you could see all the old tendencies and lazy narratives bubble back to the surface. Her press conference following the loss was short, and direct, with Serena explaining that she really didn’t want to talk about how disappointing the loss was.
A reasonable person might surmise that after a lifetime of training, twenty years in the sport, and a grueling run through the year’s final slam with no margin for error, coming up just short of the greatest accomplishment in your career would be quite painful, and difficult, and not wanting to talk about it at length is not only understandable, but quite relatable, and human.
Plenty will see it that way, but plenty of others will toss around the same old tired notions of Serena as “rude”, “bitter”, and a “sore loser”. It’s enough to make a person crazy, to make them think that all of this love and support, and talk of #QueenSerena, can all disappear, the moment the trophies do.
But then you remember, that no matter what gets said, no matter the reaction to her tournament, her presser, her schedule, her dinner plans with Drake, Serena isn’t hearing any of that noise.
She’s just going to do her. In victory and defeat. And with or without the Grand Slam, 2015 has reaffirmed that that’s what makes her our greatest champion.