For several years now, Menaka Guruswamy, an advocate at the Supreme Court of India, has been writing a superb column in that most readable of India’s newspapers, the Indian Express. In this inspirational piece she celebrates one of the most remarkable sporting icons of the 21st century: Serena Williams.
After narrating Serena’s mind-boggling career stats (eg. 23 Grand Slam titles, more than any other player, male or female, in history), Ms Guruswamy gets down to business by explaining that Serena’s legacy extends way beyond tennis: “Serena’s brilliance and achievements and her legacy as the greatest tennis player ever is not, in my opinion, simply about her tournament record. Her legacy as the greatest is due to how she has, along with Venus, transformed the sport of tennis. Since they started playing professionally, more young African American girls and boys have picked up a tennis racquet. Children of colour would line up to watch the sisters play at tournaments and wait to get autographs after the game. Tennis courts sprang up in Harlem, New York — a bastion of African American life, culture and heritage. Naomi Osaka, the former world number one, who herself is bi-racial with a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, often points to Serena as her childhood tennis idol.
Let us examine the transformational nature of Serena the player both racially and in terms of gender. In 1999, she won her first grand slam at 17. At that time, she became the first Black player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win a Gram Slam tournament. She was two months pregnant with her daughter Olympia, when she won the Australian Open in 2017. Serena’s comeback after pregnancy contributed to an important change in women’s professional tennis: Players were allowed to enter tournaments based on their rankings prior to their pregnancy, for three years after giving birth.
Serena made us think about issues related to gender and longevity for athletes (including in professional life), when she recently, thoughtfully discussed her retirement at the age of 41. As she explained in Vogue, “Believe me. I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. 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 labour of expanding our family. Maybe I would be more of a Tom Brady… But, I’m turning 41 this month and something has got to give.” Tom Brady, the American football quarterback, as also Roger Federer, played their respective sports well into their 40s, while their wives had children.”
Ms Guruswamy finishes the piece by recalling a fist-pumping anecdote from the beginning of Serena’s career: “Almost two decades ago, in a previous life as a corporate lawyer in New York, I was at the US Open watching her play. The Williams era had started and both sisters were winning tournaments. In the early 2000s, American crowds were still not used to the sport being dominated by African American women. On that humid day in New York, at the Arthur Ashe stadium, the crowd got behind Serena’s white opponent, willing her to win. I was surprised that a champion would be treated this way, but then understood slowly why she is who she is. As the crowd roared in support of every point her opponent won, you could see Serena concentrating harder and narrowing her gaze, focussing only on her opponent. It was like she was blocking everything out. With sweat dripping down her forehead, and her muscles gleaming under the sun, Serena got ready to serve. As she slammed down an ace, she clenched her fist and looked towards the section of the crowd where her father sat. You could never intimidate Serena off any court or any stage. She went on to win that edition of the US Open, again.
Serena taught me that you have to revel in your difference, and enjoy the mastery of your skills. As you do so, you raise important questions that need to be discussed. For doing all of this, while winning everything that could be won in tennis many times over, Serena Williams will always be the greatest tennis player of all time. For not only did she dominate the sport, she transformed it.”
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