No athlete captured the attention of the sports world this summer quite like Serena Williams. The world No. 1 tennis player has long been a dominant presence in the sport, but it wasn’t until this year that Williams truly had the support and attention that many fans long felt she deserved.
And despite falling short of the Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in September, Williams had a stellar season by any measurement, winning three of the four majors and finishing the season with a 53-3 record. As a result, Sports Illustrated named Williams this year’s Sportsperson of the Year, an honor that the magazine’s managing editor Christian Stone called a “decisive choice,” as she beat out Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, the World Cup gold medal-winning U.S. women’s national soccer team and Stephen Curry, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.
The award, announced Monday morning, puts Williams in rare company. The 34-year-old becomes just the third solo female athlete, and the first individual black woman ever, to be honored since its inception in 1954. Olympic runner Mary Decker was the most recent woman to win outright and that happened in 1983 — a gap of 32 years. Only three other tennis players have won the award. Arthur Ashe was the most recent in 1992.
“Sports Illustrated honors her dominance in 2015, when she won 53 of her 56 matches, three of the four Grand Slam events and built the most yawning ranking points gap between her and her closest competitor in tennis history,” Stone wrote. “We honor her, too, for a career of excellence, her stranglehold on the game’s No. 1 ranking and her 21 Grand Slam titles, a total that has her on the brink of Steffi Graf’s Open Era Slam record, which Williams will likely eclipse by mid-summer.”
As Lindsay Gibbs at Think Progress notes, there have only been 10 times that the honor has gone to women. Tennis legend Billie Jean King was the first in 1972, but she was a co-winner with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. The World Cup champion U.S. women’s national soccer team was honored in 1999. And most recently, basketball Hall of Famer Pat Summitt shared the award with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in 2011.
It was even more rare for a tennis player to be honored. Chris Evert, the 1976 winner, was the last female tennis player to receive the award. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who also had a season worthy of a nomination, has been on the radar the last several years, but neither he nor his peers in the Big Four of men’s tennis — Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — have won the award. Neither has Graf, who was the last tennis player to win the Grand Slam in 1988.
“This year was spectacular for me,” Williams wrote on Instagram. “For Sports Illustrated to recognize my hard work, my dedication and my sheer determination gives me hope to continue on and do better. As I always say, it takes a village, it’s not just one person. This is not just an accomplishment for me, but for my whole team. I am beyond honored.”
Like Ashe and King before her, Williams was also recognized for reasons beyond the court. Ashe was famously known for his humanitarian work and Sports Illustrated’s Kenny Moore wrote in 1992 that Ashe, who died in 1993 due to complications from AIDS, “epitomizes good works, devotion to family and unwavering grace under pressure.” King is universally credited as a pioneer in women’s sports and has inspired generations of female athletes.
This year marked a significant period for Williams, who returned to Indian Wells for the first time since being victim of a hostile crowd in 2001. She also started giving her voice to social causes, notably supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that gained momentum after the shooting deaths of several unarmed black men.
“I’ve been a little more vocal,” Williams said in S.L. Price’s article that accompanies the announcement of the award, “but I want to do more. I want to help everyone to see the so-called light. But there are a lot of other athletes, actors, politicians who are speaking out—of all colors, by the way. They’re not sitting back. They’re calling for justice straight away. It makes me look at myself and say, like, What am I doing? I have a platform. I can speak out, too. If one person hears me, maybe that person can speak out and help. I embrace that. I’m willing and happy to be part of this new movement.”