September 8 — It ended suddenly, almost at the same time. It was going to end soon no matter what, but still.
Serena Williams took a final spin Friday night on Arthur Ashe Court and began her departure from the game of tennis. Four days later, Sue Bird played her final WNBA game in Seattle, where she had won four titles over the past two decades and was the face and voice of the sport. “Thank you Sue! »
And just like that, less than a week apart, two of the giants of women’s sports have finished, so to speak. It was inevitable, but still disgusting. We all owe them so much.
Williams and Bird have been eloquent vanguards in the areas of gender equity, body image, LGBTQ rights, self-presentation, fashion and strength. They did this by affirming their beliefs without regard for the repercussions. They did this by doing what they believed to be right and just. By being themselves.
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And by being themselves, they encouraged a generation of people — not just women, black people, or gay people, but everyone — to be assertive as well. Between them, they’ve amassed a significant 54 titles, between Serena’s singles and doubles, Bird’s NCAA and pro championships, and their nine Olympic gold medals combined.
They won just as big off the court.
In 2006, Aaron Rowand was invited to the ESPY Awards after he smashed his face on the Phillies center field wall. The coolest part?
“I have to meet Serena,” he said. “Man!”
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Three years later, Williams was in New York defending his US Open title and threw the first pitch in an August game at the new Yankee Stadium. Earlier in the evening, she met a tennis connoisseur named David Robertson, a 24-year-old relief pitcher.
“I was a huge fan of hers ever since she came onto the scene, because I had played tennis competitively as a kid, until I had to make a decision between tennis and baseball,” said Robertson, now 37. former Phillies reliever. “She’s amazing. I watched her last game. I watched it all the way. We will miss her.”,
Perhaps more than any woman of their generation, Serena and Sue made it cool to be strong and fierce and competitive and smart and different, without compromise.
Bird came out as a lesbian in 2017. A year later, she and her partner, professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, were the first openly gay couple on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s The Body Issue. It happened eight years after Serena posed nude for the inaugural edition.,,
“The more people that go out, that’s when you get to the point where nobody has to go out,” she told Time magazine ahead of the Olympics last year. “Where you can just live.”
Serena has insisted on doing it since she turned pro in 1995, aged 14, a year after her older sister, Venus. It’s been 27 long years.
Few modern athletes have had to endure the racism, misogyny and body shaming that Serena suffered. In 2001, a New York radio personality said she was an “animal” better suited to National Geographic magazine than Playboy. Former Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev called Serena and her sister, Venus, “The Williams Brothers” in 2014, and was suspended by the WTA for a year.
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It has been the constant victim of the limitations of vocabulary and taste of journalists and their editors; her wardrobe has been battered, her body compared to a monster truck. Former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in 2012 took to the court before an exhibition match against another player with her padded top and skirt, poking fun at Serena’s curves.
With measured grace and patience, they endured and thrived.
This is not an obituary. It is an appreciation. Serena and Sue don’t disappear. They are recalibrating. Serena has a 5 year old daughter and a venture capitalist. Bird owns part of a professional women’s football team, part of a media company, and will pursue a career in broadcasting.
Nevertheless, the past week has been shocking.
Bird was eliminated in Game 4 of the WNBA Semi-Finals, but had she won her fifth title, she would not have played after September 20 and, as the No. 4 seed against the Aces of Las Vegas, seeded, that was unlikely. Serena could have lasted another eight days, and while a 24th Grand Slam singles title would have closed the storybook – it would have tied her most to Margaret Court – her stunning upset of No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit as an unranked entrant was still likely going to be the highlight of his outing.
If you don’t consider Sue’s exit equal to Serena’s, you and Aces coach Becky Hammon are at odds:
“It’s a bit like [being] the girl who beat Serena Williams,” Hammon said.
Sue is 41; Serena, 40 years old. It’s amazing that they’re suddenly old and suddenly gone, but somehow still relevant in sports that typically grind their participants to dust at the age of 30.
Pertinent? Absolutely. Bird averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 assists in 35.6 minutes and started all six playoff games. Serena, on the other hand, was even better.
“I thought she was going to beat me,” said Ajla Tomljanovic, the woman Hammon was talking about, who is 11 years younger and lost the second set. “She’s the greatest of all time, period.”
Serena was the best tennis player in history and the best female athlete of her age. perhaps the best athlete of her age, and perhaps the best female athlete in history.
Bird wasn’t the best WNBA player her age, but she might be the closest. His NCAA titles in 2000 and 2002 at UConn launched the Huskies dynasty. The plucky playmaker from Long Island was the National Player of the Year in 2002, when she became No. 1 overall in the 2002 WNBA Draft. The Storm were the league’s worst team. With Bird, he won four WNBA titles.
It wasn’t – it’s not – just female athletes that Serena and Sue represent. It’s not just women either.
It’s anyone who feels marginalized. Those who feel compelled to hide their true selves. Those who have been made to feel that their body type, or their sexual orientation, or their hair texture, or their skin tone might be seen as less good, or bad, or wrong.
With dignity and grace and sometimes a little fieriness, Serena and Sue brought us closer to inclusion. Now, as they enter the next phases of their lives, everyone knows that she has done her best; that she did what she thought was right at the time.
And they did it in the brightest possible spotlight at the highest level possible.
What male athlete has faced similar challenges and can claim the same?
Really, how many of us can claim the same?
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