Today, Serena Williams graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in full baby-bump mode as the wife and mother-to-be bared it all, a-la Demi Moore’s cover some 20 years ago. This cover release coming less than a day after she has once again had to defend her legacy, this time against tennis legend John McEnroe, who claimed “If Serena played the men’s circuit, she’d rank like 700.”
Before Black Twitter could have a collective breath and hand it to McEnroe, Williams herself responded in true queen fashion: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.”
Many have debated this topic surrounding her “greatest” title for some time, however, it’s really what the world-class athlete deals with outside of the sport that cements her status.
Williams’s career has spanned almost 20 years, much longer than many of the women who started during her era. As new women in the sport have come and gone, Serena has been a mainstay on the tour, and a threat whether she was ranked at number 1 or number 144.
The accolades are just the start of what makes Serena a legend and puts her in the conversation around the greatest athletes of all time. In her singles career, she has racked up a record 23 Grand Slam titles (Slam Era); surpassing the record of Steffi Graf after winning this year’s Australian Open. As if this feat weren’t daunting enough, she’s also won 14 Grand Slam Doubles titles with sister Venus Williams, and 2 Mixed Double Grand Slam titles. Serena has the best serve in the history of women’s tennis, has won 4 Olympic Gold medals, 72 total titles, and a career winning percentage that sits just over 85 percent. If there was a record that Serena wanted, she has attained it and no competitor over the past 20 years has even come close in her power, skill, and technique except that of her older sister.
Yet and still, Serena remains the topic of debate when it comes to the sport alone. What most leave out is the outside factors that make Serena’s ability to stay dominant while living in a world of marginalization and intersections as a Black woman. Serena won this year’s Australian Open without dropping a single set, nor dropping any hints about the fact that she was with child. Little did the world know, she was 8 weeks pregnant when she beat her sister for this year’s Australian title. A pregnancy that has since cut Serena’s season short and added another layer to her greatness, and a problem that women in sports must deal with in comparison to their male counterparts.
Career vs. family is one of the hardest choices women must make, as men don’t have to deal with pregnancy nor the choice of leaving behind a sport while fighting the natural biological clock so to speak. For Serena, the second oldest player on the tour to have to make this decision while still at her peak speaks volumes about women athletes and how there is “no good time” to make a decision to have a child while being active in the sport. As if this wasn’t enough to set her apart from her male counterparts (Federer, Jordan, Phelps, and Bolt), Serena deals with sexism, misogynoire, transphobia, and racism at levels unmatched.
It was almost 20 years ago when Serena Williams was met with racial slurs and boos from a crowd at Indian Wells tournament in California, after fans accused the family of rigging the tournament when Venus forfeited a semi-final match allowing Serena to go to the finals. In that finals, she would play the former GOAT, Steffi Graf, in a match she has deemed the worst experience of her life. Although she won the match, the scars left from it would be long standing and she vowed to never return. It took 16 years before she finally made the return to receive a standing ovation as the righting of the wrong done so many years ago.
This type of hate is nothing new to Serena, as her physique has often been called into question, and on numerous occasions, she has been criticized for being too “manly” or masculine appearing. She and Venus have been referred to as monkeys, apes, and gorillas as recent as 2017, making it as relevant a part of their career as a tennis ball.
Serena’s outside intersections also include activism, as she has been vocal about #BlackLivesMatter and the problems she has with police brutality in this country. On several occasions she has spoken out about the shooting deaths of innocent Black people and vowed to not sit in silence. A stance, that as we have seen in the case of Colin Kaepernick could cost you your job, yet and still she remains determined and steadfast.
Williams was also an integral part of the fight for equal pay in tennis with her sister Venus, a fight that still wages on until this day. For Serena, she cannot just simply be an athlete as most of her male counterparts can. The totality of her lived experience intersected with her tennis career, further marginalized by her womanhood and Blackness, is what creates her superiority to her peers.
There is no true answer to who is the Greatest Athlete of all-time, and it will be debated long after many of us are gone. However, it cannot be denied that Black women in sports have an identity that comes with much more of a burden, one that she must carry on and off the court with her every day of her storied career.
But in making the case for Serena as the all-time great, let us take in the fact that she is currently still on the court practicing like the champion she is, all while 27 weeks pregnant.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, TheGrio, JET, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.