NEW YORK (AP) — In 2016, in response to the fatal police shooting of two black men a day apart, Serena Williams joined a small choir of top black athletes to speak out. “I will not be silent!” she swore.
“Haven’t we been through enough, opened so many doors, impacted billions of lives?” Williams asked in a Facebook post following the back-to-back murders of Philando Castile just outside St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I realized that we had to take great strides – because that’s not the path we’ve come but the path we still have to go,” she wrote.
That wasn’t the only time Williams broached the politically thorny subject. It’s an outspokenness for which other black athletes, from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, have paid a heavy professional price.
After nearly three decades in the public eye, few can match Williams’ range of accomplishments, medals and awards. Through it all, the 23-time Grand Slam title winner hasn’t let the public forget that she is a black American woman who takes responsibility as a beacon for her people.
From the start of her professional career, Williams was different because of her unconventional rise in the predominantly white sport – a black girl who honed her formidable skills on the public tennis courts of Compton, Calif., away from the clubs privileged private individuals who fed most of the United States. players. Even as a teenager, her response to racism, hostility and the undermining of the establishment made her a role model for black Americans.
Now that Williams, 40, has indicated she is is about to hang up his tennis racket for good, perhaps even just after the US Open, which begins on Monday, sports analysts will take stock of her reign as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But no matter how his swan song plays out, Williams’ iconic status on and off the court, as well as his impact on the black community, is indelible.
“Most black people understand sacrifice,” said ESPN SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan. “If they can’t take your game down, they’ll find other reasons: your braids, your hair, your attitude, your body type, the clothes you wear.”
“It was always about that with Serena, because it was never about her tennis,” Duncan said.
When black women and girls were reprimanded for wearing beads in their braids at work, in class or at athletic competitions, they could see Williams and her sister, Venus, swinging tennis rackets as their beads clacked in all their bright and colorful glory. .
Some of Williams’ competitors, intimidated by the task of beating her, turned to disparaging remarks about her physical build and looks. His answer ? A dignified and seemingly indifferent Williams brushed off questions from the press about it. At other times, a more cheerful Williams was seen “Crip walking” on the tennis court after winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics, a nod to her Compton roots.
Even as a top athlete who amassed wealth and influence, Williams remained grounded in the grim realities of the times. After winning the championship at Wimbledon in 2016, Williams was asked what needed to be done to address the underlying issues after several Dallas police officers were fatally ambushed by a sniper in protest of the shooting of black men by the police.
“I don’t think the answer is to keep shooting our young black men in the United States…or just black people in general,” she said. “Furthermore, obviously, violence is not the solution to solve it. The shooting in Dallas was very sad. No one deserves to lose their life – no matter what color they are, where they come from. We are all human.
After gun violence affected their own family, Serena and Venus Williams opened a community center in Compton in 2016 to offer counseling and therapy to residents affected by the violence. The Yetunde Price Resource Center is named after their half-sister, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2003.
Martin Blackman, a former professional tennis player, said the Williams sisters’ journey in sports inspired black Americans like him who had seen few black suitors in the arena.
“The way people might connect with not having to be rich to play the game, not having to go the traditional route to do it,” said Blackman, now general manager of player development and coaches at the US Tennis Association.
“They weren’t insiders,” he said of Serena and Venus.
Serena Williams’ temperament off the pitch has been as impactful as her dominance in games, Blackman added.
“Just the balance to be able to maintain a balance between being a fierce competitor, a strong black woman who was comfortable in her own skin,” he said. “Someone who was always respectful, always polite, never lost her temper at press conferences. She’s not just a role model, but she’s kind of a role model for what you can do without compromise who you are.
At a pivotal time in her career, Williams chose to stay away from the Indian Wells tournament in California for many years after she and her father said they heard racist taunts from fans upset by Venus’ default before a one-on-one match with Serena.
The slights to Serena Williams didn’t stop there, especially at times when her conduct was seen by some as unsportsmanlike.
During her loss to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open final, Williams shouted angrily in response to what she saw as unfair treatment from the chair umpire. An Australian newspaper ridiculed Williams in a cartoon, depicting her with exaggerated physical features strikingly similar to racist Reconstruction-era caricatures of black people.
Black American involvement in tennis dates back to just before the turn of the 20th century. However, black players were barred from the former US National Lawn Tennis Association and forced to play in separate tennis clubs, until Althea Gibson broke the barriers 72 years ago this month.
Gibson became the first black player to tour America in the 1950s and won multiple Grand Slam titles. It is a source of pride for the American Tennis Association, founded in 1916 to train young black tennis talents, to have trained people like Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
But Williams’ success has spurred interest in the sport beyond anything the organization has seen before, ATA President Roxanne Aaron said.
“You don’t have to walk in the same shoes as everyone else,” Aaron said of the lessons Williams’ career teaches promising players. “You can even identify your own path, and that’s the path you shouldn’t take regardless.”
Players who emerged after Williams, like Osaka and Coco Gauff, are among the talents who cite the Williams sisters as inspirations in a still predominantly white sport.
Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, and moved to the United States when she was 3, called Serena “the main reason I started playing football. tennis”.
The same influence hasn’t been seen in other diversity-starved sports, ESPN’s Duncan said.
“With Tiger Woods, we kept hearing about how he inspired this new generation of black and brown kids in golf,” she said. “The AS you seen? I don’t see it. We see it with Serena.
“Will she become one of the greatest athletes of all time?” Duncan asked. “Yes. But I think more than anything, she’s one of the greatest influencers of all time.”
“She’s playing against the very girls who were inspired by her, those chocolate girls who said, ‘It’s a tennis club sport. But my God, if Serena and Venus can dominate, why can’t I? “”
AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.
Aaron Morrison is a New York-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.