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2 May 2017

The power of Serena Williams

The tennis champion and motherhood

By Caroline Crampton

With a single photograph, Serena Williams changed everything. On 19 April, she posted a picture to the photo-sharing app Snapchat that shows her reflected, side on,
in a mirror. We saw Williams’s toned, athletic frame in a yellow swimsuit, her hips turned to show a slight bump where her usually flat stomach would be. The caption read: “20 weeks”.

It was a canny move from the tennis champion – not least because she let the media work out for themselves that she had been eight weeks pregnant at the end of January when she won the Australian Open for
a record seventh time.

On 24 April, she followed up with another post, this time on Instagram, in which she addressed her unborn baby. “I can’t wait to meet you. I can’t wait for you to join the players’ box next year,” she wrote, signing off “from the world’s oldest number one to the world’s youngest number one”.

Pregnancy among elite athletes is unusual; having babies is something that professional sportswomen do once they retire (Williams is
35 and still winning). Women’s sport has made great strides in recent decades as far as recognition and compensation goes but there is still a sense that the roles of “nurturing mother” and “aggressive competitor” can’t be combined.

That Williams is starting a family while her playing career is still going strong, and that she is hinting that she’ll be back on court next year, is groundbreaking.

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Yet while Williams’s picture made headlines, news outlets expressed surprise that her fiancé is Alexis Ohanian, a 34-year-old co-founder of the influential aggregation website Reddit. People magazine called him “the luckiest nerd” after Williams accepted his marriage proposal last year.

On 24 April (his birthday), Ohanian celebrated impending fatherhood by posting a drawing to his Reddit profile that showed him and a pregnant Williams drawn in the distinctive style of “Snoo”, the site’s alien mascot.

Serena Williams was born in Michigan in 1981, but when she was still a young child the family moved to Compton, Los Angeles, an area known for its history of gang violence. (Her older half-sister Yetunde Price was killed in a drive-by shooting in the area in 2003.) Their father, Richard, began teaching Serena and her elder sister Venus to play tennis from an early age, determined to coach them to professional glory. Later, the family – who are devote Jehovah’s Witnesses – moved to Florida so that the sisters could attend a tennis academy there.

This is hardly the first time that Williams’s body has been the subject of scrutiny. She is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, and her victory in Melbourne in January was her 23rd Grand Slam singles title – the most won by any tennis player since the so-called open era began in 1968.

Her playing style is built around a powerful serve and forceful ground strokes from the baseline – an approach that demands a degree of physical fitness and muscle development previously unknown in the women’s game. She is strong and fast, and has the physique to match. She is exuberant on court and celebrates her victories with fist pumps.

Williams’s status as one of the most famous black women in the world has brought all the more scrutiny of her physique and career. Ever since her professional debut at the age of 14, and then her first Grand Slam win at the 1998 US Open (she was 17), she has faced criticism that she is unfeminine or “hypermasculine”. The racist dimension to this is clear and both Williams sisters have been jeered and booed on court.

“We have never seen a phenomenon like the Williams sisters in tennis and I fear we never will again,” wrote the political commentator Martin Jacques in 2005. “They have done this through celebrating, not denying, their colour and their culture. This is why tennis has found it difficult to accept them. In no sense can Serena and Venus be regarded as honorary whites: they are black and proud of it.”

Serena Williams maintained a 14-year boycott of the Indian Wells tournament in California after crowds reportedly shouted racist epithets during the 2001 final. In a column for Time in 2015, she wrote that “the undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

Days after Williams announced her pregnancy, the former world number-one player Ilie Nastase was suspended by the International Tennis Foundation after he was heard speculating that her baby would be “chocolate with milk”. In a statement, Williams commented that “this world has come so far but yet we have so much further to go”.

Writing in the New York Times in 2015, the poet Claudia Rankine identified Serena Williams as the embodiment of black excellence. “The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism,” she wrote. “Imagine.” 

This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On