NEW YORK — Chanda Rubin, Tennis Channel commentator and former sixth-largest singles player in the world, credits a small part of her fifth WTA singles title to Serena Williams. Rubin beat Williams “by the skin of the 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. hand and Williams told Rubin, “Now go win The Tournament.”
Why Serena Williams Is Iconic For Many Black Women
It was the kind of unspoken support that any black person operating in a majority white space could recognize.
Williams is more than five years younger than Rubin, who was no slouch and had already won a title that summer. But Williams was No. 1 at the time and had enjoyed a 21-game winning streak, including a victory over Rubin at Wimbledon. Her words imbued Rubin with a confidence she still remembers vividly today.
“She told me that, and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I should.’ And then I won the tournament!” Rubine said. “It was just something about being a competitor and going all out against her, but having total respect, being uplifted by her – all these feelings, for me, are linked to it.”
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As Williams begins the US Open, which she believes will be the end of her tennis career, she leaves in her wake more than two decades of black women who have watched her and at one time or another Felt like Rubin standing at the net that day. Proud. Raised. Energized.
Williams is a talisman for many black women because the only lines she stayed in were on the tennis court. Even her presence there, when she and her sister Venus debuted in the late 1990s, was sweeping, more than 40 years after Althea Gibson became the first black player to win a Grand Slam. Title.
Williams has driven criticism of her body, fashion and career choices insane because of her success: 23 Grand Slam trophies, an Open-era record and a record $94 million in career earnings . She and her sister Venus have opened up a diversity pipeline in tennis, making a once hostile environment more hospitable. She endured racism, made it to the top of the mountain anyway, and then planted herself there, breathing easily in the thin air.
“Serena is iconic for black women,” said Dawn Staley, the legendary South Carolina college basketball coach. “She does it her way, and there’s no more comfortable way to do it. We all want that. We all want to be in a space in our professions where we can be us. Because not everyone can. And certainly not every black woman is capable of that.
Staley has spent his career around big, strong, hardy athletes. She knows that they are often more agile than they look, just as she knows the limits of towering height and big feet.
When asked what impresses him most about Williams’ sporting career, it’s not longevity or titles won or number of weeks at No.1.
“Um, I mean, a big body like that isn’t supposed to move like that,” Staley said with a hearty chuckle. “Seriously, think about power and grace. She has the best of both worlds. I love it.”
When speaking with black women about their feelings about Williams, what comes across unmistakably is her comfort in her own skin.
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From the moment she appeared on tour, Williams stood out even to her sister, never fitting the paradigm of what audiences had come to accept as a “typical” tennis body. She played with beads in her hair and worked muscular arms and legs, unleashing battle cries that echoed through a stadium when she raised her fist after a big point.
Her screams, in particular, were remarkable. Williams plays with all the passion with which black women — all women — have been told to hold back their entire lives, lest lazy brains make them angry, sassy, disrespectful or worse.
“Looking different or feeling different or sounding different, especially in the workplace, was something a lot of us could relate to,” said Roxanne Aaron, president of American Tennis. Association, a black organization over 100 years old.
Aside from the simple fact of Williams’ physical presence, that’s how she chose to boldly adorn it.
Denim, like Williams wore at the US Open in 2004, isn’t really meant to be thrown in. Tulle, as seen in her ballerina skirt at the US Open in 2018, might not suit a warrior in some minds.
Perhaps nothing communicates confidence more than a one-legged catsuit.
Williams’ boundary-pushing ensembles expressed the type of personality usually reserved for streetwear. They were defiant and jovial, like Williams herself.
For Rubin, the outfits were also a mission statement.
Williams dressed the way she wanted, challenging not only what the public was used to seeing, but also the idea of what a player representing top brands should look like.
“For me – I’ll speak for myself – I think a lot of times black women in sports feel like we’re lowest on the totem pole in terms of what’s valued most, what people want to see or what sponsors you want to connect with,” Rubin said. “As tennis players, that’s kind of how we value each other – ‘How much do you make on the market? What is the value of your contract? Watching Serena and seeing her evolve, dress how she wants and just be who she is… I think that resonates. She owns her value. She established the market.
Years ago, Williams was filming a commercial that needed a stunt double, someone who could impersonate a younger version of her from the neck down. The shoot ended up being what Coco Gauff says was her first check.
Looking back, the payday is symbolic. When Gauff shot to tennis stardom with a surprise fourth-round run at Wimbledon in 2019, she entered a world in which consumers were used to seeing black female tennis players at the top of the food chain and sponsors and TV broadcasters valued them more appropriately.
Williams had topped Forbes’ list of highest-earning female athletes for years when Gauff made her debut, having won the title from Maria Sharapova in 2016. Prior to that, Sharapova had reigned for 11 straight years despite the disparity in their achievements in the field. – five Grand Slam titles in 2016 against Williams’ 21.
But after Williams, another woman of color took the crown.
Naomi Osaka, the child of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who considers herself a follower of Williams, became the highest-paid female athlete in the world in 2020. She put her talent and attractiveness to good use multicultural to set a single-year earnings record for a female athlete with $37.4 million, a record she eclipsed this year by just under $20 million.
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“We’re product pushers, we’re influencers, and Serena made sure black women were represented in that way,” Staley said.
Gauff understands this intimately. She will play this year’s US 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 besides Roger Federer with iconic shoes.
Responding to a question about her relationship with Williams, Gauff said the lesson she learned from conversations with the 40-year-old over the years was about career management. She notices the way Williams behaves, that she never puts herself down.
“Sometimes being a woman, a black woman in the world, you sort of settle for less,” Gauff said. “I feel like Serena taught me that by watching her. She never settled for less. … As a person, I’m coming of age and learning to handle things now with the media, tennis and all, I’m trying to learn not to settle for less.
“Someone Who Looked Like Me”
Osaka was filmed at a tournament in Cincinnati this month cheering in the stands while watching Williams’ first-round match against Emma Raducanu. She froze amid applause when she realized the camera was on her, capturing her messy bun and off-duty glasses.
She was at the game not to scout – she had lost earlier in the day – but as a fan, to soak up as many moments of her idol’s career as possible.
“His legacy is really vast to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said Osaka, who cried when she realized Williams was preparing for the final stage of her career. “She changed the sport so much. She introduced people who had never heard of tennis to the sport. I think I’m the product of what she did.
If Williams affected the everyday woman of color more emotionally or internally, her impact on tennis is the ironclad distillation of her influence.
The Williams sisters turned what was a dismal trickle of black and brown players entering the sport into a more steady stream, in large part because of the way they broke through. The success of the sisters raised in Compton, Calif., was a family affair, which proved that stars could come from anywhere in the country and didn’t have to be rich to win.
The US Open reached an all-time high 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).
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Black female players the Williams sisters have inspired include Grand Slam champions like Osaka and Sloane Stephens. On the men’s circuit, USA’s No. 2 Frances Tiafoe calls her mentors Venus and Serena.
“Growing up, I never thought I was different because the number one player in the world was someone who looked like me,” Gauff said.
Yet the real power is the ability to not only chart a wider path for those who follow, but to affect those around you. Williams gave Rubin a mission in 2002 with five words and his presence.
Rubin, who over the past few years has connected with her former adversary about the challenges and joys of motherhood as they catch up, continues to be inspired.
“There’s no plan, really, for what she’s done and what she’s able to continue to do beyond tennis,” Rubin said. “That’s what’s amazing. We’ve set the bar pretty high for her at this point, but in some ways she’s still figuring a lot out too. I’m feeling lucky. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to witness it.