Many of us here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue are Serena Williams fans. We have watched her be body policed (see Catherine’s post on athleticism and beauty), clothing policed (see Mina’s post on the catsuit), and just generally treated with disrespect (see Catherine’s post about the infamous 2018 US Open).
In an oddly titled article — “Serena Williams poses unretouched for Harper’s BAZAAR” –Serena Williams offers a candid personal essay about her love of tennis, her success as a champion, and the challenges she has faced in tennis as a woman and an African American woman.
Serena Williams has been known to lose her cool on occasion on the court. She has taken umpires to task, thrown down her racket, been penalized for standing up for herself over a penalty she didn’t think she deserved. She has also dominated the game for 20 years already, more than holding her own in a sport in which she looks different from the majority of other competitors. She is a strong and muscular, for one thing. She is African American for another.
Last September she lost the US Open to Naomi Osaka. The loss came after a series of penalties against Serena Williams, including being docked a game for her outburst over previous penalties. In the Harper’s Bazaar essay, Serena admits that Naomi played the better game and that her own (Serena’s) behaviour detracted from Naomi’s moment as the US Open Champion and first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam. Serena writes that she knew she owed Naomi an apology, and sent said apology with further congratulations.
Naomi Osaka received the apology with grace and reassurance, so much so that it brought Serena Williams to tears. Osaka said: “People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two. No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing’.”
Last week I wrote about Venus Williams in relation to role modeling and mentoring of the next generation of athletes. Serena Williams is similarly an idol of many up and coming young tennis players, and an icon in the sport. Her essay in Harper’s shows a degree of self-awareness, social and political awareness, humanity, self-confidence, humility, and concern for the next generation — “the next girl who comes along and looks like me, and I hope, ‘Maybe, just maybe, my voice will help her.”
In so many ways it’s precisely because of the hardship and challenges that Serena has experienced that she has been forced to “represent” and to see herself as a role model for “the next girl who comes along and looks like” her.
Men in tennis don’t have to see themselves in this manner because they are not scrutinized in the manner that Serena has been. She stands out when she stands up for herself because it’s not comfortable for women to do that. It’s not comfortable for African American women to claim their space and their voice the way Serena has. This is not to say none has done it before. But she has a particular position as a long reigning champion that has put her in a role that, though not chosen, she must embrace. As Naomi Osaka pointed out to her, Serena is a trailblazer. Blazing the trail isn’t easy, but it’s welcome, commendable, and heroic.