Serena’s legacy extends well beyond the tennis court
OPINION: She will be remembered as the greatest of all time, of course. But being an inspiration for generations of little Black girls is her greatest accomplishment.
Breaking the mold is great.
Lining up a bunch and smashing each one until they’re flattened into dust, whack-a-mole style, is better.
Serena Williams is like that. So is her older sister, Venus. Half of every tribute to either applies to both. But we’re here to sing the praises of the little sister, who on Tuesday announced she’s retiring from tennis following the U.S. Open. Just as her father predicted and loudly told anyone who’d listen, Serena will go down as the greatest.
Take away the 23 Grand Slam singles championships, a feat that leaves her one shy of Margaret Court’s all-time record. Volumes can be written on Williams’ tennis accomplishments alone. But for a moment, simply consider all the boxes that she didn’t fit. The narratives she shattered could fill a shelf of self-help books.
Williams didn’t just play with a chip on her shoulder; she became a chip on the establishment. The more it tried to brush her off, the bigger she grew.
“If I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am,” she wrote in her first-person announcement via Vogue. “When someone said I was just the little sister, that’s when I got really fired up. “To me that’s kind of the essence of being Serena: expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong.
“There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.”
Don’t waste time or breath trying to convince me that Williams isn’t a superhero, one of history’s most vivid illustrations of a Black superwoman.
Brains and beauty; style and grace; strength and power. She exhibits them all and then some. The fierce combo brings out the worst in a certain segment of sports fans and culture critics. But who cares what they think?
It’s the little brown girls she affected who matter most—with or without beaded braids. The princesses who might’ve considered their skin too dark or their thighs too thick. The angels who might’ve thought they’re restricted to prescribed places that don’t include country clubs. The darlings who might’ve felt weird playing untraditional sports and thinking unconventional thoughts.
Williams has always inspired those little girls, and she made her biggest impact on them, not the game. Tennis can’t compete with Black Girl Magic, especially not her own daughter, nor a desire to have more children, a driving force in the retirement decision. Playing at age 41, after a series of injuries and a life-threatening scare while giving birth to 4-year-old Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, has become a sacrifice she’s unwilling to continue.
Conversely, she wrote: “The fact is that nothing is a sacrifice for me when it comes to Olympia. It all just makes sense. I want to teach her how to tie her shoes, how to read, where babies come from, and about God. Just like my mom taught me.”
She’s hanging up her racquet but not taking off her cape. Although she suggests she’d keep playing if not forced to choose between tennis and growing her family (“maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity”), her choice reflects what’s most important in the end.
Her parents, Richard and Oracene, realized as much while pouring into their budding prodigies. It would’ve quickly been “to hell with tennis” if those girls weren’t getting good grades, exploring various interests, and growing into smart, wise, and well-rounded young ladies.
Instilling such values was a challenge while the family made ends meet in Compton; resources won’t be the same issue for Williams and her husband, Alexis Ohanian. But raising Olympia and (they hope) another child comes with its own demands. Williams wants to grow alongside her offspring, phase-by-phase, setting another beautiful example of self-development they can appreciate when older.
“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is ‘evolution,’” she wrote. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family.
“I want to grow that family.”
She’s come a long way since being a curiosity in The New York Times. The brief mentioned potential coaches for 11-year-old “Venus, who is already known nationally, and her 10-year-old sister, Serena Williams.” The world never imagined what would happen; such a journey has never been seen.
We’re thankful for Williams’ 23 Grand Slam titles and we’re grateful for the last 23 years (dating to her first U.S. Open championship). The tennis was phenomenal.
But like Olympia and little girls all over, some now grownups, we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron
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