Serena’s example: The tennis icon’s influence was felt in black America

BY AARON MORRISON

26 Aug 2022 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — In 2016, in response to police fatally shooting two black men just a day apart, Serena Williams joined a small choir of top black athletes to speak out. “I will not remain silent!” she swore.

“Haven’t we been through enough, opening so many doors, impacting billions of lives?” Williams invited in a Facebook post in the wake of the consecutive murders of Philando Castile outside of St. Paul, Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“I realized we have to move on – because it’s not about how far we’ve come, it’s about how much further we have to go,” she wrote.

That wasn’t the only time Williams dealt with the politically sensitive issue. It’s an openness that other black athletes, from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, have paid a heavy professional price for.

To Almost three decades in public, few can match Williams’ array of achievements, medals and awards. Through it all, the 23-time Grand Slam title winner hasn’t let the public forget that she is a Black American woman who accepts her responsibility as a beacon for her people.

From the start of her pro career, Williams was credited for her unconventional rise in the predominantly white sport — a black girl honing her impressive skills on the public tennis courts of Compton, California, a far cry from the privileged private clubs that sustained most Americans – excluded players. Even as a teenager, her reaction to racism, hostility and establishment subversion made her a role model for black Americans.

Now that Williams, 40, has hinted she is is getting ready to hang up her tennis racket forever, perhaps even right after the US Open, which begins Monday, sports analysts will take stock of her reign as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But whatever her swan song, Williams’ iconic status on and off the pitch, as well as her impact on the black community, is indelible.

“Most black people understand victims,” ​​said Elle Duncan, a presenter for ESPN’s SportsCenter. “If they can’t pick your game apart, they will find other reasons: your braids, your hair, your attitude, your build, the clothes you wear.”

“That’s what Serena was always about, because it was never about her tennis,” Duncan said.

When black women and girls were scolded for wearing pearls in their braids at work, in the classroom, or while playing sports, they could see Williams and her sister Venus swinging tennis racquets while their pearls click-clicked in all their bright and colorful glory.

Some of Williams’ competitors, intimidated by the task of beating her, turned disparaging remarks about her physical stature and appeal. Your Answer? A dignified, seemingly unconcerned Williams brushed off press questions about it. In other moments, a happier Williams was seen “crip walking” around the tennis court after winning gold at the London 2012 Olympics, a nod to her Compton roots.

Even as a top athlete who amassed wealth and influence, Williams kept his feet on the ground in the grim reality of the time. After winning the championship at Wimbledon in 2016, Williams was asked what should be done to resolve the underlying issues following the fatal ambush of several Dallas police officers who were gunned down by a sniper to stop the shooting of black men by the police police to protest.

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(AP Video/Ted Shaffrey, Aaron Morrison)

“I don’t think the answer is to continue shooting our young black men in the United States … or just black people in general,” she said. “Also, violence is obviously not the answer to solve it. Filming in Dallas was very sad. Nobody deserves to lose their life – no matter the color of their skin or where they come from. We are all human.”

After gun violence affected their own family, Serena and Venus Williams opened a community center in Compton in 2016 to provide counseling and therapy to residents affected by violence. The Yetunde Price Resource Center is named after her half-sister, who was killed in a 2003 shooting from a moving car.

Martin Blackman, a former professional tennis player, said the Williams sisters’ journey through the sport inspired black Americans like him, who had seen few top black contenders in the arena.

“The way people can connect with the fact that they don’t have to be rich to play the game and they don’t have to go down the traditional route to make it,” said Blackman, now general manager for player and gaming Coach Development at the US Tennis Association.

“They weren’t insiders,” he said of Serena and Venus.

Serena Williams’ temperament off the pitch had just as much impact as her dominance in games, Blackman added.

“Just the poise of maintaining a balance between being a fierce competitor and being a strong black woman who’s comfortable in her own skin,” he said. “Someone who was always respectful, always polite, never lost his composure in press conferences. She is not only a role model, but a kind of template for what you can do without putting yourself at risk.”

At a pivotal point in her career, Williams chose to stay away from the Indian Wells tournament in California for many years after she and her father said they heard racist taunts from fans who were upset that Venus faced a head- to-head match with Serena was defaulted.

The insults towards Serena Williams didn’t stop there, especially at moments when her behavior was deemed by some to be unsportsmanlike.

During her loss to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open final, Williams screamed angrily in response to what she felt was unfair treatment by the chair umpire. An Australian newspaper satirized Williams in a cartoon, depicting her with exaggerated physical features that strikingly resembled racist caricatures of Reconstruction-era blacks.

Black American participation in tennis dates back to just before the turn of the 20th century. However, black players were barred by the former US National Lawn Tennis Association and had to play at separate tennis clubs until Althea Gibson broke barriers 72 years ago this month.

Gibson was the first black player on the US tour in the 1950s, winning multiple Grand Slam titles. Founded in 1916 to nurture young black tennis talent, the American Tennis Association is proud to have trained players like Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

But Williams’ success has increased interest in the sport beyond what the organization had previously seen, said ATA President Roxanne Aaron.

“You don’t have to be in the same shoes as others,” Aaron said of the lessons Williams’ career teaches aspiring players. “You can even find your own way, and that’s the way you should go no matter what.”

Post-Williams players like Osaka and Coco Gauff are among the talents the Williams sisters cite as inspirations in a still-predominantly white sport.

Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father and moved to the United States when she was three, called Serena “the main reason I started playing tennis.”

The same influence hasn’t been seen in other sports starved of diversity, ESPN’s Duncan said.

“Tiger Woods is what we’ve always heard about inspiring this new generation of black and brown kids to play golf,” she said. “Did you see it? I don’t see it. We see it with Serena.”

“Will she go down as one of the greatest athletes of all time?” Duncan asked. “Yes. But I think more than anything, she’s one of the biggest influencers of all time.”

“She’s playing the very girls who were inspired by her, those chocolate girls who said, ‘This is a tennis club sport. But God, if Serena and Venus can dominate, why can’t I?’”

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AP tennis writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.

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Aaron Morrison is a New York-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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