They Couldn’t Touch Her: How Serena Williams Became a Rare Legend | Serena Williams

OOnly in America could Serena Williams happen. Only in the US could this particular amalgam of style, determination and acuity take shape: a black Compton Jehovah’s Witness who, in the face of racism, sexism, illness and family tragedy, worked persistently to tell the story of a predominantly owned sport, to be rewritten uncompromisingly, played and seen by wealthy whites.

The origin story reads almost three decades later like a grand tale, a fever dream yarn too fantastic to be true: a father idly surfing the channels from his armchair until he comes across a tennis tournament, awestruck by the $40,000 check presented to winner, eyes widening at the vision of opportunity taking shape in the tube’s dim glow. The words echoed through Richard Williams’ head: “I’m going to have two kids and take them to tennis.”

Venus was 10 and Serena was nine when Richard – with his inimitable blend of Don King ambition and Bundini Brown mysticism – first declared that Venus would be world No. 1. Serena, he assured, would be even better. One day they would play each other for the Wimbledon title. He was unceremoniously dismissed as a clownish stage father by the sport’s goalkeepers and the global sports press. But over time, every last prediction, every incredibly bombastic proclamation came true. If anything, he undercut them.

You’ll be reading a lot about this real-life folk tale in the coming weeks following Serena’s first-person essay in Vogue, which was published Tuesday paved the way for their retirement from competitive tennis and suggested the US Open – where she won the family’s first major title as a braided 17-year-old phenomenon in 1999 – would be her farewell event. The tide of applause and tributes is already in full swing and will only increase as the season-ending Grand Slam tournament in Flushing Meadows approaches.

All of this must be approached with the appropriate skepticism. Much like Muhammad Ali’s sanitized journey from public enemy and advocate of the marginalized to universally acclaimed and corporate-recognized icon, Williams fought his way onto the stage amid opposition, ridicule and criticism from every corner. Over time, Serena’s importance became stupidly obvious, an undeniable cultural truism. But let’s remember that many of the appreciations during her departure will come from the same gatekeepers who resisted her ascension. What top champion in any sport has received even a fraction of the coded criticism that Williams has endured for most of her career?

The receipts are everywhere. And the sniping certainly didn’t end after Williams’ greatness was made undeniable by her simultaneous possession of all four Grand Slam titles in 2003, a feat so rare it’s been eponymously linked to her. A Open letter in Tennis Magazin by Chris Evert in 2006, who dubiously doubted their engagement; a scathing review from 2007 by Pat Cash declared her washeda stunning 2009 screed by Jason Whitlock, who demeans Williams in sexualized, animalistic language so much that it reads like satire. A Union official one day, of sports radio commentator the next.

Serena Williams celebrates defeating Maria Sharapova in the 2013 French Open final.
Serena Williams celebrates defeating Maria Sharapova in the 2013 French Open final. Photo: David Vincent/AP

Like Tiger Woods, she has brought people into the orbit of a sport who would never have bothered to watch a tennis match. And she paved the way for a new generation of African American stars like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend and Coco Gauff who are no longer cast as underdogs.

Malcolm X said in a 1962 speech: “The most respected person in America is the black woman. The most vulnerable person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Those re-evaluating Williams’ extraordinary narrative from positions of privilege might be tempted to downplay the double burden she overcame with the kind of grace and composure that only us in was taught in classrooms. But in a society riddled with segregation from the start, Serena stayed a step ahead of the antagonism and bigotry that followed her every step to inspire millions by spreading the sport across Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Lionel Messi transcended out into the thin air of Ali , Wilma Rudolph and Jackie Robinson.

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How fortunate Williams was to find a binary platform — ball in or out — where not even the elemental forces allied against her could deny her what is rightfully hers, a justice far too many black women in American society fail to afford becomes. You can’t touch them. And they never could.

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