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What Serena Williams means to Black women

‘She’s doing it her way, and there’s no more comfortable way of doing it.’

Naomi Osaka counts herself as a Serena Williams disciple. (David Gray/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Chanda Rubin, a Tennis Channel commentator and former sixth-ranked singles player in the world, credits some small part of her fifth WTA singles title to Serena Williams. Rubin beat Williams “by the skin of her teeth,” she said, in a three-set quarterfinal in Los Angeles in August 2002. At the end of the match, the players met to shake hands and Williams told Rubin, “Now go win the tournament.”

It was the kind of tacit support any Black person operating in a majority-White space might recognize.

Williams is more than five years younger than Rubin, who was no slouch herself and had won a title already that summer. But Williams was No. 1 at the time and had been on a 21-match winning streak that included a victory over Rubin at Wimbledon. Her words imbued within Rubin a confidence she still vividly remembers today.

“She said that to me, and I thought, ‘Okay, yeah, I should.’ And then I won the tournament!” Rubin said. “It was just something about being a competitor and going all out against her, but having total respect, being uplifted by her — all of those feelings, for me, are wrapped up in it.”

The Serena Effect changed every aspect of women’s tennis

As Williams begins the U.S. Open, which she has hinted will be the end of her tennis career, she leaves in her wake more than two decades’ worth of Black women who have watched her and at some point or another felt like Rubin did standing at the net that day. Proud. Uplifted. Energized.

Williams is a talisman for many Black women because the only lines she ever stayed within were on a tennis court. Even her presence there, at the time of her and her sister Venus’s debuts in the late 1990s, was radical, more than 40 years after Althea Gibson became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title.

Williams made the critics of her body, her fashion and her career choices look foolish because of her success: 23 Grand Slam trophies, a record in the Open era, and a record $94 million in career earnings. She and sister Venus opened a pipeline of diversity in tennis, making a once-hostile environment more hospitable. She endured racism, reached the mountaintop anyway, then planted herself there, breathing easy in the thin air.

“Serena’s iconic to Black women,” said Dawn Staley, the legendary college basketball coach at South Carolina. “She’s doing it her way, and there’s no more comfortable way of doing it. We all want that. We all want to be in a space in our professions where we’re able to be us. Because everybody ain’t able. And every Black woman certainly isn’t able.”

Comfort in her own skin

Staley has spent her career around tall, strong, sturdy athletes. She knows they’re often more agile than they look, just as she knows the limitations of towering height and big feet.

When she’s asked what impresses her most about Williams’s athletic career, it isn’t the longevity or titles won or number of weeks spent at No. 1.

“Um, I mean, a big body like that is not supposed to move like that,” Staley said with a warm chuckle. “Seriously, think of the power and grace. She has the best of both worlds. I love it.”

In speaking with Black women about their feelings on Williams, what comes up without fail is her comfort in her own skin.

The wins, losses and comebacks that made up Serena Williams’s career

From the moment she emerged on tour, Williams stood out, even compared to her sister, never fitting the paradigm of what audiences had been taught to accept as a “typical” tennis body. She played with beads in her hair and worked muscular arms and legs, unleashing war cries that reverberated through a stadium when she pumped her fist after a big point.

Her screams, in particular, were noteworthy. Williams plays with all of the passion that Black women — all women — have been told to dampen their entire lives, lest lazy brains cast them as angry, sassy, disrespectful or worse.

“Looking different or feeling different or sounding different, especially in the workplace, that was something a lot of us could relate to,” said Roxanne Aaron, the president of the American Tennis Association, a more than 100-year-old Black organization.

Aside from the sheer fact of Williams’s physical presence was how she chose to boldly adorn it.

Denim, as Williams sported at the U.S. Open in 2004, isn’t really meant to be lunged in. Tulle, as seen in her ballerina skirt at the U.S. Open in 2018, might not be fit for a warrior in some minds.

Perhaps nothing communicates self-confidence more than a one-legged catsuit.

Williams’s envelope-pushing ensembles expressed the type of personality usually reserved for streetwear. They were defiantly, breezily individual, like Williams herself.

To Rubin, the outfits were also a mission statement.

Williams dressed the way she wanted, challenging not just what audiences were used to seeing but the idea of what a player representing blue-chip brands had to look like.

“For me — I’m going to speak for myself — I think a lot of times Black women in sports feel like we’re the lowest on the totem pole in terms of what is more valued, what people want to see or what sponsors want to connect with,” Rubin said. “As tennis players, that’s sort of how we value ourselves — ‘How much are you getting in the marketplace? What’s your contract value?’ Watching Serena and seeing her evolve, dress the way she wants and just be who she is … I think that resonates. She is owning her value. She set the market.”

The next generation

Years ago, Williams was filming a commercial for which a stunt double was needed, someone who could pass for a younger version of her from the neck down. The shoot ended up being what Coco Gauff says was her first check.

In hindsight, the payday is symbolic. When Gauff shot to tennis stardom with a surprise run to Wimbledon’s fourth round in 2019, she stepped into a world in which consumers were accustomed to seeing Black female tennis players atop the food chain and sponsors and TV broadcasters valued them more appropriately.

Williams had topped the list of Forbes’ highest-earning female athletes for years when Gauff made her debut, after taking the title from Maria Sharapova in 2016. Before then, Sharapova had reigned for 11 straight years despite the disparity in their on-court achievements — five Grand Slam titles as of 2016 to Williams’s 21.

But after Williams, it was another woman of color who took the crown.

Naomi Osaka, the child of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who counts herself as a Williams disciple, became the world’s highest-paid female athlete in 2020. She leveraged her talent and her multicultural appeal to set an earnings record for a female athlete in a year with $37.4 million, a record she eclipsed this year by just shy of $20 million.

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“We are product pushers, we are influencers, and Serena has made it okay for Black women to represent in this way,” Staley said.

Gauff understands this intimately. She will play this year’s U.S. Open in her signature shoe, the Coco CG1, which she produced with longtime sponsor New Balance. At 18, she is the only active tennis player aside from Roger Federer with signature footwear.

In answering a question about her relationship with Williams, Gauff said the lesson she has taken from conversations with the 40-year-old over the years is about career management. She notices the way Williams carries herself, that she never puts herself down.

“Sometimes being a woman, a Black woman in the world, you kind of settle for less,” Gauff said. “I feel like Serena taught me that, from watching her. She never settled for less. … As a person, I'm growing into being an adult and learning how to handle things now with the media and tennis and everything. I'm trying to learn to not settle for less.”

‘Somebody who looked like me’

Osaka was caught on camera this month at a tournament in Cincinnati, cheering in the stands while watching Williams’s first-round match against Emma Raducanu. She froze mid-clap when she realized the camera was on her, capturing her messy bun and off-duty glasses.

She was at the match not to scout — she had lost earlier that day — but as a fan, to soak up as many moments of her idol’s career as she could.

“Her legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said Osaka, who cried when she realized Williams was gearing up for the final leg of her career. “She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done.”

If Williams has affected the everyday woman of color in more emotional or interior ways, her impact on tennis is the rock-solid distillation of her influence.

The Williams sisters turned what was a sad trickle of Black and Brown players entering the sport into a steadier stream, in large part because of the manner in which they broke through. The Compton, Calif.-raised sisters’ success was a family affair, one that proved stars could come from anywhere in the country and didn’t have to be wealthy to win.

The U.S. Open hit a high water mark in 2020 with 13 Black players in the women’s singles tournament, a 25-year age gap between the oldest (Venus) and youngest (15-year-old Robin Montgomery).

Serena Williams faces steep climb in what is probably her final U.S. Open

The Black players the Williams sisters have inspired include Grand Slam champions such as Osaka and Sloane Stephens. On the men’s tour, the United States’ second-ranked player, Frances Tiafoe, calls Venus and Serena mentors.

“Growing up, I never thought that I was different because the number one player in the world was somebody who looked like me,” Gauff said.

Yet true power is the ability not just to cut a wider path for those who follow but to affect those around you as well. Williams set Rubin on a mission in 2002 with five words and her presence.

Rubin, who in more recent years has connected with her old opponent over the challenges and joys of motherhood when they catch up, continues to be inspired.

“There’s no blueprint, really, for what she’s done and what she’s in a position to continue to do beyond tennis,” Rubin said. “That’s the amazing part of it. We set the bar pretty high for her at this stage, but in some ways, she’s still figuring a lot of things out, too. I feel lucky. I feel lucky that I’ve had an opportunity to witness it.”