"If I were a man, I would have been called the greatest" - Serena Williams opens up on sexism, racism and being called GOAT
The former World No. 1 athlete won her 22nd Grand Slam this year - tying the Open Era record.
Considered one of the greatest to have ever played the sport, tennis legend Serena Williams has more records and titles than any male tennis player. Despite this, however, she is still considered, or spoken of, as inferior to the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Having suffered through the throes of racism and sexism in what has become the most decorated sporting career in history, Serena Jameka Williams opened up in an interview with rapper Common for an interview special with ESPN.
In it, the 34-year-old spoke of how significantly she was inspired by older sister Venus, also a former World No. 1, who guided the younger Serena through the sport.
The pair are considered pioneers for black women in sport, decades after Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe made their mark on a sport that had been dominated by white athletes. Today, that has changed significantly with a markedly more racially diverse playing unit. But that was not always the case.
“Everything I’ve done is with the help of my sister Venus,” Serena said. “At the time, when I started out, I did not think I was opening doors for black athletes, or female athletes. I just ended up on this path, and people began to look up to me because it was different.... I was being myself.”
To date, the younger Williams sister says she did not start out with that agenda, but it is one she is happy to carry now. “I don’t think of it as a weight,” she continued, “and I’m not carrying it alone. I embrace it.” A devout Jehovah’s Witness, Williams said she believes “god has given” her the mantle.
That does not mean it is devoid of pressure. “Sometimes, when I’m on the court, then I feel the pressure,” Williams says. “When I’m playing a Grand Slam final, that’s when I feel a lot of expectations, that’s when I’m like, ‘Serena, would you rather have your 22 Grand Slams, or two or three and not have people have all these expectations?’”
Williams expounded on the racial pressures she has faced throughout her career, saying the pressures were even harder “as a black woman.”
The sisters’ experiences with racial abuse in their childhood is well-documented, and Williams recounted those experiences. “From the first day I stepped on the scene … I’m talking when I’m really young, because we’d go to parks, and where I was from we would train in Compton, and we would go to these parks and there’s usually only white people that play tennis, you know?”
“So for probably as long as I can remember, I’ve always been able to relate that I am black. I am different because of what I do. But I also had my family around and Venus was doing it too, and my other sisters were doing it.”
But the pair saw even more insiduous, abusive racism very young. I do remember one time I was playing, and these kids came up behind me while we were practicing and — I was probably, like, 7 — they were calling me Blacky. [Both laugh.] Me and Venus, they were like, ‘Blacky and Blacky.’ I remember thinking, ‘I don’t really care’ — and that’s pretty crazy to think that at that age.”
Serena credits a significant bit of her self-confidence to her parents, tennis coaches Richard Williams and Oracene Price. “They always wanted us to be proud of who we were,” she said, “we were always told to love ourselves. My dad always said you have to know your history, and if you know your past, you can have a great future.”
An outspoken activist against racism, Williams said her parents had the sisters watch historical specials on understanding their roots. “You become proud, you see all the stuff your people went through so you have an opportunity.”
“ If you think about what the slave had to go through, and then the life that we are privileged to live — I wouldn’t want to be any other color. There’s no other race, to me, that has such a tough history for hundreds and hundreds of years, and only the strong survive, so we were the strongest and the most mentally tough, and I’m really proud to wear this color every single day of my life,” she said.
Given she has had to face double the barriers most athletes have – both racism and sexism have been constant features in Williams’ life.
“If I were a man,” she said, “I would have been in that conversation a long time ago. I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being black, so it’s a lot to deal with — and especially lately. I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”
It is important, Serena says, to shut oneself out when fully involved with the sport. While she says she is not impervious to criticism, ignoring a large bit of the scrutiny has helped her.
“At a very young age, I think I was 17, I stopped reading any press about me. I think that helped me avoid a lot of the scrutiny, and I kind of put myself in a bubble. I feel like I definitely was scrutinized because I was confident — I was black and I was confident. And I am black and I am confident. But I would say, ‘I feel like I can be No. 1.’”
Williams has also suffered racist abuse on the internet for her body, and has been body-shamed for most of her career. Despite this, the American has come out as a body-positivity icon. But she admitted in the interview that this was not always the case. “There was a time when I didn’t feel incredibly comfortable about my body because I felt like I was too strong. I had to take a second and think, ‘Who says I’m too strong? This body has enabled me to be the greatest player that I can be,” she said.
But she came out of that, too, unscathed. “Now,” she laughed, “my body is in style.” Williams credited her parents with helping her battle through this, saying “I’m just really thankful for the way I was brought up by my mom and my dad to give me that confidence. I could have been discouraged, and I wouldn’t be as great as I was because I would have done different exercises or I would have done different things. I totally embrace who I am and what I am.”
It is this self-belief that has made Serena Williams the icon she is today.