Sports Illustrated, a prestigious athletics magazine, awarded Serena Williams their ‘Sportsperson of the Year’ honor. The tennis phenom dominated the tennis court in 2015, so their selection of Williams is unsurprising. She won 53 of 56 matches in 2015, earned three significant tennis titles, and earned two times as many overall points as the no 2. ranked tennis player, Simona Halep. After earning $74 million in tennis prizes, a no. 1 ranking, and 21 career Grand Slam titles, Williams entered a unique space where her prowess intimidates opponents before she steps on the tennis asphalt.
Despite her accomplishments, Williams battles two specific obstacles both within and outside of the sport she controls. Serena Williams’ role as a Black woman leading a white-dominated sport often leads to intense scrutiny of her body and her behavior. The ways that racism and sexism collide for Black women doesn’t escape Williams, even after she ascended the tennis ranks without expensive prep-school training. Williams’ beautiful, muscular figure is derided for not being feminine enough while her passion for her sport is perceived as anger.
She earned $13 million in endorsements in 2015, which is $10 million less than Williams’ arch-rival Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t won a match against her since 2004. As writer Marc Bain explains at Quartz, “this gap has no logical explanation, except for long-held prejudices about female sports stars and how people feel they should look.”
Serena Williams understands that her Blackness also factors into the wage gap she experiences. “If they want to market someone who is white and blond, that’s their choice,” she told the New York Times Magazine in August. “I have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me.”
Few incidents capture the discrimination Williams navigates more than her experience at Indian Wells, a tennis tournament, in 2001. After Williams’ sister, Venus, pulled out of a match against her four minutes before it was set to begin, both women and their father were bombarded with racial epithets and boos. In her 2009 autobiography, On the Line, Williams recalled the experience from her perspective.
“I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob,” Williams wrote. “I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match. There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word nigger a couple times, and I knew. I couldn’t believe it.”
After this racist incident, both Williams’ sisters initiated a self-imposed Indian Wells exile. In March, Williams returned to Indian Wells for the first time in 14 years. She chose to return to the tournament after reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
“That’s when I realized I had to go back,” Williams told Vogue in March. “I always talk about forgiveness, but I needed to actually show it. It was time to move on.”
She was welcomed with a standing ovation, soaring ticket prices, and a win over Monica Niculescu, but Williams knew that returning to Indian Wells was bigger than merely earning prize money.
“I had been a teenager at Indian Wells, and that was hard for me to go through—especially when I was thinking, It’s 2001, I [shouldn’t] have to deal with that stuff as much anymore,” she told Sports Illustrated. “Now fast-forward to 2015, and we still have young black men being killed. Someone needed to do something. And I thought then that there was something greater than me and tennis. I needed to go back there and speak out against racism.”
In considering Williams for the ‘Sportsperson of the Year’ award, Sports Illustrated’s editors and writers addressed the ways that she must navigate racism and sexism in the sport.
“But we are honoring Serena Williams too for reasons that hang in the grayer, less comfortable ether, where issues such as race and femininity collide with the games,” wrote Christian Stone, the magazine’s managing editor.
Serena Williams is one of the few elite athletes that embrace Black excellence. She isn’t a member of the Pharrell Williams-led “new Black” coalition that see classism as a replacement for racism. Instead, Williams understands how race influences every area of American life, as evidenced in her decision to fundraise $100,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents prisoners who have been wrongly convicted.
“It’s been huge,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told Sports Illustrated, about Williams support of his organization.
“It’s so rare when athletes at the top of their game are willing to embrace a set of issues that, for a lot of people, are edgier. This is not aid to orphans. These are questions of racial bias and discrimination, mass incarceration, excessive punishment, abuse of the mentally ill. You don’t change the world by doing what’s comfortable or convenient. You have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. In a small way, Serena’s return to Indian Wells represented that. But associating herself with an organization like ours was more significant: She was standing when a lot of her contemporaries remain seated, speaking up when others are being quiet. That’s an act of hope and an act of courage, but it’s also an act of change.”
She’s also expressed public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, writing in an essay for Wired “To those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you.” In a Q&A at the University of Pennsylvania in November, Williams said she’s been inspired by Black activists to use her platform to raise awareness about racism and sexism.
“I’ve been a little more vocal,” Williams said, “but I want to do more. I want to help everyone to see the so-called light. But there are a lot of other athletes, actors, politicians who are speaking out—of all colors, by the way. They’re not sitting back. They’re calling for justice straight away. It makes me look at myself and say, like, What am I doing? I have a platform. I can speak out, too. If one person hears me, maybe that person can speak out and help. I embrace that. I’m willing and happy to be part of this new movement.”
Serena Williams is deserving of Sports Illustrated’s ‘Sportsperson of the Year’ award. On the court, she dominates the competition. Off the asphalt, Williams is an advocate for a multitude of issues, including mass incarceration, racism, and sexism within Silicon Valley.
She is the best tennis player in the history of the sport, and her unapologetic Blackness makes it all the more sweeter. As Williams told the New York Times Magazine, “I play for me, but I also play and represent something much greater than me. I embrace that. I love that. I want that.”