A few days ago, I went to dinner with some friends at a swanky restaurant. We politely discussed the menu, ordered our food and drinks, and unsubtly checked out all of our fellow diners (all the quintessential hallmarks of a successful dinner party). Conversation, as always when conducted between very different people, was light. Movies, music, sports. We stuck to safe topics, until someone mentioned Wimbledon — or more specifically, until someone mentioned Serena Williams.
It’s difficult to explain how massively the Williams sisters changed tennis. If you’re not a tennis fan (I have heard the game being described as ‘boring’ and ‘elitist’ before), it’s similar to the ways in which Jackie Robinson changed baseball. If Jackie was the wave that turned the tide, then Venus and Serena are the tsunamis that changed the coastline.
I grew up watching tennis. Well, to be more precise, I grew up playing tennis (disclaimer: I’m terrible). I was six when my grandfather gave me my first tiny tennis racket, and grand slam tournaments were quality entertainment for the whole family. Almost every member of my family (immediate and extended) followed the game. In my grandparents house, where I spent most of my time, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles were what Tendulkar, Bradman, Kapil Dev, and Brian Lara were in others.
I spent a lot of time abroad as a child, only moving back to India permanently when I was seven. At various points in my life I have been the only person of colour in a room, and until I hit my teens, I never truly understood the impact this had on my life. So it’s not surprising that when Venus Williams burst into the scene with her iconic wins, I was mesmerised. She completely dominated every court she played on. She was so incredibly badass and so incredibly unapologetic about it. She upturned every stereotype there is about female tennis players — Venus was powerful in a way that few female athletes are, even today. And to top it off, she was a strong, empowered black woman in a field that was mostly dominated by white people.
Venus was (and still is) a lot of things: a feminist who demanded respect and equal pay for her amazing talent and hard work, an entrepreneur, a designer, and a best-selling author. But equally as important, she was the juggernaut that paved the way for her sister, Serena.
Serena Williams has been described as the greatest female tennis player of all time. She has decimated previously held records with 21 grand slam titles, 14 doubles grand slam titles and 4 olympic medals. Yet, every time someone mentions her, the same opinions are often voiced, just packaged in different ways. ‘She makes me uncomfortable’, ‘She looks and acts like a man’, and in some cases ‘She dresses too provocatively for tennis’. She’s the most recognisable female athlete in the world and even so, she’s been labelled ‘unwomanly’ and ‘too sexy’ at the same time. Quite a feat.
But what exactly is considered womanly, anyway? As we can all attest, women (like men) come in all shapes, sizes, and hues. When Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal won their titles, I can’t remember anyone commenting on their masculinity. So why does Serena inspire such animosity?
Honestly you can word it any way you like, but for most people (even women) Serena is an oddity because she isn’t the kind of pretty that ends up on magazine covers, and she’s not apologetic about it. She doesn’t act bashful or grateful for her victories — instead, she demands respect and recognition. And why shouldn’t she? She has more than earned it.
Whether you like it or not, race does play a big role in this as well. She’s a person of colour, and she has not only broken the mould but stomped on it and crushed it into tiny bits.
More importantly, she’s a woman of colour who is beautiful and unquenchable in a way that has been ignored and negated by mainstream media. While the Beyonce’s and Zendaya’s of the world are just as important, they still conform, at least appearance-wise, to societal ideas of what a woman should be. No disrespect toward either of these women, but it’s a fact that more little girls in the world want to look like Beyonce than Serena. I find that incredibly heartbreaking.
I belong to the 99 percentile of women who do not look like Vogue models (or the so-called other end of the spectrum… Kim Kardashian). All my life I’ve had people, often friends and family members, who have commented on various aspects of my appearance: too tall, too fat, too skinny, too awkward. I’ve heard it all. And like all women, I’ve had days when I’ve looked in the mirror and just wanted to crawl back into bed. It’s not easy being ‘womanly’ when the standards are so very unattainable. Some of us aren’t ever going to be a size zero or shaped like an hourglass, and if we’re lucky, we’ll learn to live with that.
I must admit that one of the reasons why I love Serena could be labelled superficial — she makes me feel better about the way I look. Perhaps that will seem shallow and frivolous to some, but I know that others (especially women) will understand what I mean. In an interview, she recently said, “I’m Serena, I’m happy to be Serena, and I will always be Serena. And if I’m not true to myself, then who am I?” Serena’s beauty is quintessentially her own. She’s powerful, graceful, and striking on her own terms. She’s unstoppable. How many other people can say the same of their role model? She owns her body — whether she’s twerking in Lemonade, or serving on the tennis court — and she makes me believe that one day I will also feel like I own mine.