Make no mistake, as the tennis world turns its attention to this year’s US Open Tennis Championships, which start next week in Flushing, Queens, the biggest story line by far will be the indomitable Serena Williams.
She’s won the last four of the so-called majors, including the Australian, French, and Wimbledon titles in 2015, and is the defending female US Open champion here in Queens. It’s the second time in her career she’s won four straight majors, and tennis-watchers have dubbed it the “Serena Slam.”
But this year, Williams will be seeking the “Grand Slam,” becoming champion of all four majors in one calendar year – one of the rarest feats in all sports. Only three other women and two men have earned that distinction in tennis history, the last being Steffi Graf in 1988, and before her Margaret Court in 1970. The last man to accomplish the feat was Rod Laver, who did it in both 1962 and 1969.
While a win this year would place Williams in the tennis stratosphere, many are already calling her the greatest player to ever grace the courts. “In my mind, there's no doubt about it,” tennis great John McEnroe told ESPN. Still others say that she may just be the greatest female athlete who ever lived, rivaled perhaps, only by Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
But now in her 30s, one of the elders in a sport known for teenage phenoms, Williams has had a rare blend of mental strength and powerful athleticism over the past two decades that has also begun to alter, often in a culturally tumultuous way, the image of the female athlete.
Call it a new era of female power sports. This year, the Women’s World Cup soccer final smashed audience records for the sport in the United States, drawing nearly as many television viewers – about 23 million at its peak – as Game 7 in the 2014 Major League Baseball World Series. The US women’s national team, too, has developed a reputation for an aggressive rough-and-tumble style, as well as controversial off-field personalities.
And mixed martial arts phenom Ronda Rousey is fast becoming one of the most well-known fighters in the world – a fierce, hard-punching jujitsu specialist who even smack-talks boxing champ Floyd Mayweather Jr.
But with Williams being a high-profile black athlete in a mostly white sport – and with a historically exclusive country club vibe – her “mold-breaking muscular frame,” as The New York Times described her, has begun to challenge cultural images of femininity and athleticism.
Women’s tennis, of course, has long had its share of powerful, hard-hitting athletes, from Martina Navratilova to Graf and others playing today. But those athletes “aren't subject to the same disdain and body-focused critiques that Williams is,” writes Zeba Blay, culture writer for The Huffington Post.
And instead of being celebrated on the level of male athletes in other sports such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or LeBron James, whose endorsement deals far outstrip their salaries, Williams has long endured public taunts and gawking stares at public events.
“Because Serena Williams is a wildly successful black woman in a white-dominated sport, she occupies a fraught space both within the sport itself and the society actively informing our perceptions,” wrote Tomas Rios in The Daily Beast last month. “She is an unprecedented affront to our collective notion of the beautiful female athlete.”
Many, too, have pointed out how Maria Sharapova, a white tennis player, still makes at least $10 million a year more in endorsement deals, according to Forbes, even though Williams has beaten her 17 times in a row, spanning a decade.
Yet along with her sister Venus, Williams has already blazed new trails in women’s tennis. Raised in the notorious streets of Compton, Calif., both rose to the ranks of all-time greats in a fashion-conscious, wealthy sport where few black players ever had.
With her success, Serena Williams has also begun to become something of a new-era fashion icon. She’s put out her own fashion line and has appeared on the cover of Vogue.
Comparing Williams to the actress Jennifer Lawrence, Patricia Garcia wrote in Vogue last month, “The body acceptance that Lawrence and Williams display is not just refreshing, it’s changing the standards of beauty in both sports and Hollywood – and their attitudes serve as an example for rising stars onstage, on the field, and beyond.”
Now, with Williams poised to rewrite the record books – she would tie Graf with 22 majors titles in her career with a US Open win this year, just two shy of Court’s record 24 – Williams could also stand in history as the athlete who most defined a new era of female athleticism.
"Serena Williams is the ultimate champion. She knows what it takes to get to the top," said US Tennis Association president Katrina Adams, according to Sporting News. “She started at the bottom from Compton, worked her way up through the ranks of the professional tour to No. 1 in the world.... Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time, the greatest female athlete of all time, the greatest athlete of all time.”