Why Serena Williams is SI's 2015 Sportsperson of the Year
“But what if Daniel Murphy hits a home run a game throughout the World Series, he has to be in the discussion, right?”
These were actual words offered, in the final days of October, by a highly respected, highly decorated member of the Sports Illustrated staff. There was no humor intended. Daniel Murphy now had a seat at the table.
This is the beauty of the annual Sportsperson of the Year debate. When the Murphy hypothetical was suggested, the Mets’ second baseman was in the midst of a historic seven-home-run-in-eight-game postseason tear (a streak that incidentally ended the Sportsperson candidacy of the Cubs, which had been urgently introduced less than a week before). There was an unmistakable recency bias at work here, but history is history—and it was only last year that we saw Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner go from noncandidate to Sportsperson on the strength of a transcendent four-week October stretch. The regression gods, of course, were especially cruel to Murphy, who suffered through a very difficult World Series—one that would elevate the remarkable Royals onto the list of 12 Sports-person finalists that SI announced on Nov. 11.
This was no ordinary year in sports, in which Sports Moments™ were produced in bulk, from the first Triple Crown in 37 years (American Pharoah) to the first U.S. hat trick in Women's World Cup history (Carli Lloyd) to the first 24–0 start in NBA history, which came on the heels of an NBA title (Steph Curry’s Warriors). The longest-tenured SI staffers could not recall a year so deep in candidates who in several other years might have been considered the obvious Sportsperson recipient.
In the end, as you already know, we chose Serena Williams, and even amid such a rich collection of finalists, she was a decisive choice. Sports Illustrated honors her dominance in 2015, when she won 53 of her 56 matches, three of the four Grand Slam events and built the most yawning ranking points gap between her and her closest competitor in tennis history. We honor her, too, for a career of excellence, her stranglehold on the game’s No. 1 ranking and her 21 Grand Slam titles, a total that has her on the brink of Steffi Graf’s Open Era Slam record, which Williams will likely eclipse by mid-summer.
But we are honoring Serena Williams too for reasons that hang in the grayer, less comfortable ether, where issues such as race and femininity collide with the games. Race was used as a cudgel against Williams at Indian Wells in 2001, and she returned the blow with a 14-year self-exile from the tournament. She returned to Indian Wells in ’15, a conciliator seeking to raise the level of discourse about hard questions, the hardest ones, really. Williams, S.L. Price writes in his cover story in the Dec. 21 issue, “proffered an open hand. Far past the time that anyone expected it, she demonstrated a capacity for change—innovation if you will. She’s groping for answers and realizing she has much to learn.
“She’s determined to make a difference.”
She was a difference-maker in other areas, speaking out against bodyshamers in both words and actions, posing for the Annie Leibovitz–shot Pirelli calendar in only a bikini bottom. The cover shot of this issue? Her inspiration, intended, like the Pirelli shots, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, power. Her curiosity was ravenous, as she enrolled in an online history of civil rights class at UMass, guest-edited the October issue of Wired and announced her return to Indian Wells in an essay in SI’s sister publication, Time.
She is not perfect, and assorted confrontations with, and perceived slights of, tournament officials, opponents and the public at large will find their way into her narrative, this one included. But as a performer, as a doer, as a symbol, no one extended themselves and embraced the best (and worst) the sports world has to offer quite like Serena Williams, champion, 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.