How Serena Is Taking Her GOAT Status to the Next Level with Advocacy and Empathy

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterJuly 10, 2018

US player Serena Williams returns to Russia's Evgeniya Rodina in their women's singles fourth round match on the seventh day of the 2018 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 9, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE        (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

"I mean, this was as close to perfection as you can get," Hall of Famer and ESPN commentator Chris Evert said on Monday after Serena Williams beat the unseeded Evgeniya Rodina handily to earn a spot in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. On Tuesday, after dropping the first set, Williams came back to defeat Camila Giorgi, setting up her first tournament semifinals appearance since returning from maternity leave earlier this year. 

Both commanding performances came after Williams made headlines over the weekend for articulating in two very different ways what it takes to be near-perfect—to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time and one of the greatest athletes of her generation.

First, she answered a question about how she handles playing every opponent at their best—because she is, after all, Serena Williams. "That's what makes me great," she told reporters Friday. "I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater."

It was a clear-eyed, cogent assessment of her own on-court ability that left no room for the demure or the self-effacing, with no concession to the kinds of slings that she still occasionally receives in spite of the fact that she's proved her abilities over and over again.

A day later, her 11-month-old daughter Olympia took her first steps—which Williams shared on Twitter by saying she missed them because she was training, and that she cried when she found out. This generous moment of vulnerability was relatable instead of aspirational, prompting working moms across the world to chime in with replies. Williams made a point of showing the common ground between those seeking near perfection and those working hard just to get by.

Serena Williams @serenawilliams

She took her first steps... I was training and missed it. I cried.

That it takes sacrifice to achieve what Williams has in her career is obvious. A win at Wimbledon would be her 24th Grand Slam singles title, tying the overall record set by Margaret Court, largely before the Open Era. The rest of her records and milestones are too numerous to list here, as are the hurdles she faced in accumulating them.

No player as decorated as Williams has had to face as much adversity: In a sport where the vast majority of competitors are white, a convoluted blend of racism and sexism has haunted coverage of her many successes. Williams only managed to outearn the vastly less successful Maria Sharapova after the latter's performance-enhancing drug-related suspension in 2016.

Finally, though, it seems like the world is catching up to Serena. She's as likely to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar or InStyle as she is to be featured in Sports Illustrated; her well-documented friendships with intergalactic-level stars such as Beyonce and Meghan Markle show how indisputably her A-list status has transcended sports.

She's using that spotlight—the same one that was for so long fixated on how she was deluded or overweight or scary or in some other way offensive to not just tennis, but humanity—to illuminate how the kinds of injustices that she's now too big to feel acutely can and do impact all women, and especially black women.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 01:  Serena Williams attends a press conference ahead of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 1, 2018 in London, England.  (Photo by Jed Leicester/AELTC - Pool/
Pool/Getty Images

Williams, for example, has been candid about all aspects of pregnancy and motherhood. Her frankness about missing one of Olympia's milestones because of her demanding career is just one instance. After Monday's match, she used her postgame interview to reiterate her conviction that being a mother shouldn't be a hindrance to a woman's success in any field.

"It's really cool—you can be a mom, you can still play tennis, you can be great, and you can be in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon," Williams told the reporter, who was quick to explain what he believed were the similar challenges of fatherhood. "You can be a working mom, if that's what you choose."

Williams faced life-threatening complications after giving birth, which she disclosed in detail in a recent Vogue cover story. Through her experience, she wound up becoming a face for the disproportionately high maternal and infant mortality rates among black families. She's spoken about breastfeeding and postpartum depression, and she shared parts of her pregnancy, maternity leave and comeback in an HBO docuseries called Being Serena.

Instead of retreating into the shadows in what would have been an understandable search for privacy, Williams is bearing the new challenges and joys of motherhood publicly, at least in part to let women everywhere know they aren't alone in facing them.

Serena Williams competes in the French Open.
Serena Williams competes in the French Open.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Her return from maternity leave has been followed by its own controversies, notably her entering the French Open unseeded as per WTA precedent. Other players had previously been subject to this same precipitous drop in rank after giving birth, but the hubbub around Williams meant that not only did she enter her next tournament, Wimbledon, seeded at No. 25, but the U.S. Open actually changed its rules—as Serena suggested.

"I think and I hope—and it should be under review—to change these rules," Williams told Good Morning America in June, once again using her position to shift focus to a more systemic kind of inequality. "Maybe not in time for me, but for the next person."

Her advocacy for women's post-maternal rights in tennis has translated into advocacy for better maternity leave for all women, as well as for closing the gender pay gap—which is especially dramatic for black women, as Williams articulated in a recent essay for Fortune.

"The cycles of poverty, discrimination and sexism are much, much harder to break than the record for Grand Slam titles," she wrote. "For every black woman that rises through the ranks to a position of power, there are too many others who are still struggling."

Her sister, Venus, was already well-acquainted with this battle, having successfully petitioned Wimbledon to pay male and female winners the same prize money in 2007. Now, together, they've joined Billie Jean King in pushing for equal pay as part of her Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative.

Williams celebrates a victory with Billie Jean King in 2014.
Williams celebrates a victory with Billie Jean King in 2014.Mark Baker/Associated Press

Some of the inequalities that Williams' dominance has brought to the forefront are less tangible, if no less important. Her marriage to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian drew attention to an archaic Wimbledon practice of documenting female competitors' marriages and referring to them as "Mrs."

In Williams' case, as she chose not to change her last name when she married Ohanian, the result was the rather ridiculous "Mrs. Williams." Though the tournament hasn't changed this protocol in the wake of the conversations Williams inspired, it's one more item on the long list of conventionally accepted wisdoms that she's challenged—intentionally or not.

More purposeful is how Williams has, in a sense, reclaimed the omnipresent sexism and racism she's faced with, which has so often manifested in critiques of her body. Among the more notorious examples was a 2015 New York Times article positioning Williams as the counter to players whose appearance is allegedly more feminine.

"I'm proving time and time again there's no wrong way to be a woman," Williams stated plainly in a Nike ad that aired during this year's Academy Awards, after listing some of the myriad ways she's been told that she's not good enough. "Oh God, I'll never be a size 4! Why would I want to do that, and be that?" she told Harper's Bazaar UK earlier this year. "This is me, and this is my weapon and machine."

As Williams makes her return to the court—and seeks, again, to challenge what we think of as limits of athletic possibility—it's clear that she's in rarified air where next to none of the adversity or critics can make an actual impact. Instead, she'll keep using the attention around these would-be obstacles to try to force change that might help other women reach the same heights.