Charlotte Reed, '23
Just over a month ago, Serena Williams, 23-time grand slam champion, announced on Instagram her retirement from professional tennis following the 2022 U.S. Open. Williams retired with 73 career singles titles, 14 women’s doubles majors, two mixed doubles Slams, and four Olympic gold medals. While these numbers speak to her athletic greatness, the impact she had on tennis and its fans is far more important than her statistics. Throughout her career, Williams battled criticism, racism, and grief. She played while pregnant and returned to the sport after childbirth. She changed the idea of how a tennis champion should look, dress, and act. She inspired the next generation of girls and boys in the sport and beyond. She showed that women could be strong and beautiful and still win. Most importantly, however, she broke down barriers to bring more diversity to tennis.
While there have been many amazing women who played tennis (to name a few, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf), nobody functionally changed women’s tennis like Williams, and nobody made the next generation believe they had a chance to be as great as Serena. Looking at the current top women’s tennis players, their style of play is fingerprinted from Williams’ style: aggressive, strong, all-court play. This style of tennis was traditionally associated with men, but Serena–following in her sister Venus’s footsteps–brought this to women’s tennis.
Williams showcased a full range of passion and emotion while playing: anger, joy, shrieks, roars, and fist pumps. According to 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, who hardly ever showed emotion while playing, this was revolutionary for women’s tennis: “She’s changed the way women compete as far as it’s okay to be ferocious and passionate and vocal out there, emotional out there on the court and still be a woman, still not take away from being a woman.”
Through her fashion statements, Williams changed and pushed the boundaries of women’s tennis wear which was typically very gendered and often associated with the look of wealthy, country club attire. Key tournaments like Wimbledon maintain strict dress codes to this day, where players are required to wear all-white outfits. In 2010 and 2012, Williams pushed the boundaries of these traditional dress codes by wearing bright-colored undershorts while playing. In 2018, Williams wore a full-body black catsuit which sparked controversy in the tennis world. Now, she has her own clothing line.
In the face of intense discrimination, Williams has sought to foster diversity and equality in women’s tennis and other women’s sports. In 2007, Williams won Wimbledon and became the first woman to be paid equally as her male counterpart. Working with her sister Venus, Williams contributed in many ways to make tennis a more accessible sport. Williams contributed to the creation of a tennis arena in Southeast D.C., called the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center (STLC). Since its founding, hundreds of boys and girls have learned the game at STLC and been been awarded college tennis scholarships. Marisa Grimes, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the United States Tennis Association (USTA), attributes the record number of Black women playing in the USTA tennis camps and in the U.S. Open to Williams: "She undeniably revolutionized women's tennis, and gave so many women and girls, especially those within the Black community, a powerful representation of what it looks like to rise above adversity, fight for what you believe, and be a champion."
Williams did what no other tennis player has done: she redefined the way tennis is played and serves as a role model in terms of her mental strength and bravery. Her legacy is not restricted to her athletic abilities. Serena inspired a whole generation of Black kids to believe that they could make it big in the sport of their choice, and brought many new fans to tennis. Serena Williams’ legacy is powered by tennis and her ability to use her global platform to stand up for women, especially mothers, and the Black community, is even more profound.