Five times Serena Williams slammed it off court
She is the most talked about athlete leading up to The Championships this year. And she isn’t even playing. When you think Serena Williams, you think strength. Although on occasion, the soft, singsong quality of her voice belies her sassy calm and the clarity of her thoughts and actions. Last week, the retired tennis player John McEnroe, considered among the greatest in the history of the sport, brought her back into the limelight when he walked into the NPR studios. He was to talk about his new autobiography, But Seriously. Instead, he riled the interviewer, and subsequently many others, when he insisted on calling Serena Williams the “best female (tennis) player ever”, adding that “if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world”.
When McEnroe continued down the same path on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Williams framed a now-viral, two-part tweet-reply that began “Dear John.” She ended with “Good day, sir”.
The sass here was subdued—perhaps Williams was bored. McEnroe did later apologize, saying “maybe it was wrong”, but he wasn’t the first to qualify the quality of her game based on her gender. Right before the 2016 Wimbledon final against Angelique Kerber, a journalist asked her about being “one of the greatest female athletes of all time”.
“I prefer… ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’,” she said, with the response gaining viral traction on social media.
Rewind again, to September 2015. At a late post-match press conference during the US Open, a reporter made sure that even Serena Williams wasn’t spared what many other women are subjected to. Why wasn’t she smiling? “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s 11.30 (pm). To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now, I’ve to wake up early to practise,” she answered.
But Williams wasn’t always as confident in her skin. Despite her talent and wins on court, she has had to learn how to handle sexist and racist crowds. In an article she wrote for Time in 2015, she elaborated on her decision to go back and play at Indian Wells, more than a decade after she boycotted the tournament owing to an “under-current of racism” in 2001.
“As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently. But when I stepped on to the court, I could compete with anyone.”
If she was dealing with sexism and racism on court, she was, through her growing-up years, also dealing with body-image issues of her own. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar in 2010, the now 35-year-old mother-to-be recalls that it took her a long time, especially when looking up to her leaner elder sister Venus, to grow comfortable with her athletic build and “own it”.
“To this day, I don’t love my arms. People want more fit arms, but my arms are too fit. But I’m not complaining. They pay my bills.”
In another post-match presser, after her 2016 Wimbledon semi-final win against Russia’s Elena Vesnina, the then No.1 (and now No.4) took on a male journalist when he asked her whether women players deserve equal prize money.
“Yeah, I think we deserve equal prize money…. I mean, if you happen to write a short article, you think you don’t deserve equal pay as your beautiful colleague behind you?”
That’s Serena Williams for you. She doesn’t need a racket in her hand to be on point.