There are numerous articles—terrific articles—defending Serena Williams against the racism and sexism that have long stalked her career. This will not be one of those articles. As long as gutter invective is hurled at Serena, there will always be a need to defend her—and by extension stand up for everyone who feels the primary sting of these attacks. (J.K. Rowling is even standing up for Serena, adding a new dimension to her #blackgirlmagic.) But, just as I wrote last week about not merely “defending” women’s sports but actually going on “offense,” we need to be similarly aggressive in stating factually just who Serena is becoming before our very eyes. If our eyes remain narrowed in a defensive stance, we could be missing a transcendent chapter in sports and social history beginning to coalesce.
Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam. That’s the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined. In her last 28 matches she is 28-0, and at the US Open this August, Ms. Williams will be favored to win the sport’s first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago. At 33, Williams actually seems to be gaining strength, and as John McEnroe said to ESPNW’s Jane McManus, among women, “she could arguably be the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.” I think this even understates her case. She is our Jordan. She is our Jim Brown. She is our Babe Ruth, calling his shots. She is no longer content to dodge bullets, but understands how to stop them. Serena is that rare athlete who has not only mastered her sport. She’s harnessed it.
But Serena Williams is more than just our 21st-century Michael Jordan. If we take a break from defending her, which her detractors do not make easy, it becomes increasingly clear that she is also perhaps our Muhammad Ali. That’s sacrilege in some circles, and understandably so. Ali risked years in federal prison to stand up to an unjust war, becoming the most famous draft resister in history. His very presence at different points inspired the first Pan-Africanist stirrings of Malcolm X, the anti-war evocations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the very mental survival of a prisoner half-way around the world named Nelson Mandela. There is and never will be anyone like Ali, without question. But this is also not the 1960s, and there will also never be anyone like Serena.
Serena Williams is our Ali, and before defending that statement, I want to break down what, in my view, makes Ali “Ali.” To be in Muhammad Ali’s tradition of athletes, there are three basic boxes one would need to check: The first is that the sportsperson in question would need to be amongst “the greatest” in their field. As mentioned above, Serena more than checks that box. Secondly, one would have to be polarizing in a way that speaks to issues beyond the field: thrilling some people politically and enraging others with every triumph. Similarly, a loss would feel like more than “just a game” to their fans: more like a punch to the gut. Lastly, to even be in this conversation, one would have to not just “represent” or symbolize a political yearning but actually stand for something, and risk their commercial appeal by taking such stands. Serena doesn’t only check these boxes. She has, I would argue, confronted—and overcome—more obstacles than even the great Muhammad ever had to face. Her political powers of representation, every time she emerges victorious, is off the meter.