The Serena Paradox

The percentage of black Americans was 12.4% as of the 2020 census. Not all were descended from slaves, as some came later or are foreign born. The percentage of women is 50.1%, presumably making the percentage of black women in the United States 6.2%. So of the 331 million people in America, that leaves more than 20.5 million who are black women. While the percentage itself may be relatively small, 20 million is still quite a lot. Without that group, it would still take something exceptionally special to stand out, to stand apart from the rest.

Serena Williams has never let tennis define her.

Of course you know who Serena Williams is. Not because of what she wears, or how she does her hair, or the value of her sneaker contracts, but because she plays tennis really well.

She is a symbol. A persona. An athlete who has gone far beyond the footsteps of her trailblazing sister and came to rule a cloistered, mostly white sport. She refuses to stop there.

It was a “mostly white sport,” even if the stadium is named after Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson won a grand slam long before Serena was a twinkle in her father’s eye. It wasn’t mostly white because it was racist, as is fashionable to suggest these days, for if it were racist, neither Ashe nor Gibson would have become tennis stars.

What tennis was, back when, was a meritocracy, where people who could play the game really well became tennis stars, some legends, and others made a decent living off the game, had fun along the way, even if they never got a stadium named after them.

And then there was Serena’s older sister, Venus, who was no tennis slouch and would have likely been an even bigger star had she not been eclipsed by her baby sis. As meritocracy goes, this was a real as it gets, two exceptional tennis stars raised and reared by King Richard, who wasn’t nearly as slappy as many believed. He pushed and they responded. Serena became a star.

It is easy to forget that her championship journey, which came to include 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just shy of the record of 24 set by Margaret Court, began with a win at the U.S. Open in 1999. At 17 years old, Serena became the first Black player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first Black woman to emerge victorious in a slam since Althea Gibson in 1958.

Williams became the personification of athletic greatness and — for at least two decades — carried the aspirations of gender and racial equity.

Did she? Was there sexism in women’s tennis that Serena changed? Does Martina know about this? And why, given Althea Gibson’s success in 1958, was there no Grand Slam women’s singles winner who was black? If they could make the cut, they could win. Althea did. Venus might have. Serena did, because she was that good.

Maybe others would have been “that good” as well if they had the opportunity. Then again, very few have the opportunity, beyond not having an obsessed father trying to turn them into tennis machines. Most black people don’t play tennis, but most white people don’t either. And neither have the time, funds and opportunity to become a star, whether in tennis or much of anything else. Putting food on the table someday is about as much of an expectation as most can tolerate. Even if you had the opportunity to play some tennis, be close enough to a court to pull out the old Dunlop Maxply and rally some, you were still light years away from going pro, and could never reach the heights of Serena, or Venus for that matter.

That’s because they were exceptional tennis players and you are, well, not them. And they are, well, exceptional tennis players.

Along the way, she showed the world the incredible power of breaking boundaries and obliterating norms. The Vogue article, a first-person account, feels tellingly symbolic, even if it was long expected, given Williams’s struggles competing in recent years. She did not break the news on her Instagram account, on ESPN, or in a post-match news conference. No, Williams does what she wants, when she wants, in the way she wants.

People who are extremely good at something, so very good that they achieve things that the rest of us have no hope of ever achieving, find themselves on a well-deserved pedestal. They earned it. Maybe it was mere kismet that Serena ended up as Richard’s daughter, for if she had been someone else’s daughter and never picked up a tennis racket, she would be doing some job about which few would care outside of a small circle of friends. Maybe she was lucky enough to have the physical abilities, the mental state, to be a tennis star. Maybe she was fortunate not to be born short, or one-legged, or be hit by a car driven by a drunk. The list of things that could have happened to her is endless.

Still, Serena managed to make it happen. Others have been pushed to be sport heroes and failed. Serena put it together. All those ninnies who gripe about privilege to avoid responsibility for how little they’ve done with what they had should take a hard look at Serena, who accomplished with hard work what they never would.

Did she show “incredible power of breaking boundaries and obliterating norms”? If wearing a black body suit instead of a short white culotte is obliterating norms, then maybe, although it remains unclear why anyone would want to play a sport wearing black clothing. But there is something that Serena Williams did that has nothing to do with her race, gender or boundaries, which somehow manages to go completely unmentioned. She strove for greatness and achieved it. Some of you can. Most of you can’t. You’ll never know who is who until you try, and the worst that can happen is that you will fail, but better to try and fail than never try at all.

Serena Williams will retire from professional tennis following the next United States Open tournament. She is a legend, not because of her race, her gender or the color of her court attire, but because she was that good at playing tennis.

13 thoughts on “The Serena Paradox

  1. Richard Goldstein

    Growing up in New York City 60 years ago, there were only 2 facilities in public parks you had to pay for: swimming pools and tennis courts. Tennis courts were also limited in number. Until the era of China, tennis equipment and clothing was pricy. Apart from the overt segregation of tennis clubs. tennis was simply beyond the perceived reach of most urban kids.

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted.]

      1. Richard Goldstein

        Not at all, I was an “urban kid”: White, Jewish, lived directly on a major thoroughfare and took public transportation to Junior High, High School and City College (free back then). We lived in a housing project. When I transferred to a tuition school, it was on the US Military’s dime. You have stereotypes in your head. Shake them out. I had the grades and SAT’s for any Ivy, but not the finances. It would have been all loans, as bad a strategy then as it is now.

        1. Miles

          It’s fascinating how Scott goads people into saying things that demonstrates the vapidity of their comment and they have no clue they’re doing it, and yet people fall for it all the time. It’s really quite fascinating to watch.

          And then they vehemently deny it and vainly attempt to salvage their dignity, which is my personal favorite part.

          1. orthodoc

            I mostly agree. I have gotten a bigger dose of STFU here than just about anywhere (except at home, of course), most/all of it deserved. The man is an artist. But in context of today’s trump-release-the-warrant post about selective revelation of information, we have to entertain the possibility that Richard Goldstein wrote a rapier reply that left the host bleeding– but simply undid the comedic effect, and thus provoked the “the right to delete or edit any/all comments.” (I will get some anecdotal evidence about my theory if I see this comment itself posted. And if I am playing the straight man –more STFU coming–I will take it for the team.)

            1. SHG Post author

              I, for one, was up all night wondering whether you mostly agreed with Miles. Thanks for straightening that out.

    1. Richard Goldstein

      Sorry for the overlong babbling. I had another blog in my head at the same time. No edit function apparent, so accept my apology.

        1. Sgt. Schultz

          Sometimes, I think you’re just making stuff up about the insanity you have to face on the other side of the computer, and then something like this appears and I…understand.

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