Serena Williams the Greatest Women’s Tennis Player?

Serena Williams the Greatest Women’s Tennis Player?

Serena Williams solidified herself as one of the most talented female tennis players of all time — and, arguably, the greatest female athlete in any sport — when she won her 28th straight Grand Slam match on Saturday. Williams is now poised to make tennis history by sweeping all of the major tournaments in a single season, a feat that was last accomplished by Steffi Graf in 1988.
Despite Williams’ undeniable athletic skill, however, there’s one “controversy” that’s persisted throughout her career: Endless scrutiny over what her body looks like, and messages about why it doesn’t fit into society’s expectations for female beauty.
Just one day before Williams secured yet another Wimbledon title, for instance, the New York Times published an article that suggested other tennis players don’t want to look like her.
The New York Times wrote that Williams “has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame” and “her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.” Other (white) female tennis players were quoted as saying they try not to bulk up like Williams because they want to “be a woman” and don’t want to “feel unfeminine.” Maria Sharapova — described in the article as “a slender, blond Russian” — said that she wants to be even thinner than she is now: “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she said.
The article was widely criticized on Twitter for its central premise: Asking a bunch of white woman what they think about Serena Williams’ body in a society where black bodies are already undervalued.

“Because Serena Williams is a wildly successful black woman in a white-dominated sport, she occupies a fraught space both within the sport itself and the society actively informing our perceptions,” Daily Beast writer Tomas Rios argued this week, in a piece making the case that Williams is paid much less than her rivals like Sharapova because of these issues. “She is an unprecedented affront to our collective notion of the beautiful female athlete.”
It’s nothing new for Williams, whose body has been critiqued for years. Every win she racks up — including Saturday’s — is invariably accompanied by tasteless commentary about the shape of her body and whether or not she looks too much like a man. The dynamic doesn’t escape race and gender scholars, who have closely tracked the way Williams is portrayed in the media.
The comments also make their way back to the tennis star herself, and it’s clear that Williams is well aware of what’s going on here. Last year, after the president of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to Venus and Serena Williams as “the Williams brothers” and said the sisters are “scary” to look at, Serena Williams responded that his comments were “very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time.”
Williams has been open about her struggles with body image, saying that she’s had to come to terms with her “thicker” frame and learn to stop comparing herself to her sister. She used to want to be “long and lean,” but has since come to embrace the way she looks. “I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it,” she told the New York Times.
Time for the rest of the country to join her.

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Garber Sports Chief Editor

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