Editor’s Note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.” Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Amy Bass: Vanity Fair's portrayal of Serena Williams is beautiful, revolutionary and well deserved by the legendary athlete
Williams' accomplishments go beyond her gender, despite remarks from John McEnroe suggesting otherwise, writes Bass
Learning how to handle bad calls is something Serena Williams – and every other tennis player at her level – has had to learn, and learn well. She most recently displayed her ability to do this off the court in her response to the former bad boy of tennis, John McEnroe. “If she played the men’s circuit,” McEnroe said in an interview during his book tour, “she’d be like 700 in the world.”
Tennis settled its Battle of the Sexes back when Billie Jean King took out Bobby Riggs, a preposterous setup that presupposed a man past his prime could beat a woman in hers. And McEnroe should remember his own words: in 2015, after Williams won Wimbledon, McEnroe dubbed her “arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.” He didn’t add man or woman. He didn’t have to. It was the year that Sports Illustrated declared Serena its Sportsperson of the Year, splashing its cover with a photo of her – the first solo shot of a woman doing the honors in over 30 years – splayed on a golden throne dressed in a long-sleeved black lacy leotard and stilettos, her legs the star attraction, her steely eyes asking anyone who dares take a peek: Any questions?
While McEnroe was never able to let a bad call go in his own playing days, Serena dismissed his remarks out of hand, asking him via Twitter to avoid making statements about her “that are not factually based.” She pointed out that she’d never played a ranked man, and didn’t have time. “Respect me and my privacy,” she finished, “as I’m trying to have a baby.”
Privacy isn’t something that Serena has a lot of these days. The hot-off-the-press Vanity Fair story by Buzz Bissinger about her relationship with fiancé and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian features photographs by Annie Leibovitz, including the cover shot of a bare and beautiful, and very pregnant, Williams.
Vanity Fair has Serena, her first child due this fall, in all her glory, following in the footsteps of women like Demi Moore, Cindy Crawford, Monica Bellucci and Britney Spears. Exposing America to one of the things it still cowers in the corner away from, the pregnant body, is one thing. But for Serena, a figure who has endured unrelenting denigration of her body, it is revolutionary.
Serena Williams isn’t just an athlete. She’s an icon, a person who needs no last name. Putting her body on display is something she takes very seriously, whether on the cover of a magazine, on the tennis court, or wandering around with friends. When hawking her clothing line on Home Shopping Network a few years back, she noted that long sleeved shirts helped her remain incognito, as people could identify her from her muscular arms.
The arms that are her calling card also send balls over the net at 120-miles per hour. They are the same arms that ignited a fire in Ben Rothenberg’s discussion in the New York Times of how women on the court balance body image with ambition. Critics of Rothenberg’s piece called out how it accepted the norms presented about women’s bodies, especially black ones, and what they can do, instead of challenging them. As the most successful tennis player of all time (yes, that is a premise here, not an argument to be made), Serena’s story is that strength and success and speed and determination and dedication come in all shapes and sizes, gender be damned.
An athlete like Serena can’t be the exception to a belief that one is a woman first, and an athlete second. She is who she is because she works damn hard to get that way. And it works. On display on the cover of Vanity Fair is the body that won the Australian Open last December while eight weeks pregnant, never dropping a set. It is the body that has accomplished, as the article inside says, an aggregate winning percentage over 85%. It is the body that has won 72 Women’s Tennis Association tournaments. It is the body that has made it to 29 Grand Slam singles finals, winning 23 times (10 times after after it turned 30). It is the body that plays doubles with sister Venus, to the tune of 14 Grand Slam titles. It is the body that has won four Olympic gold medals. It is the body that has won nearly $84 million in prize money, never mind her endorsement deal earnings.
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But tennis is a game of the mind as much as the body, something that McEnroe acknowledges. Serena’s mental strength, he admitted, would give her some victories over some men on any given day. Australian TV host Tony Jones agreed, pointing at Nick Kyrgios, whose on-court antics have often been compared to those of McEnroe, as one who would fall to Serena. Kyrgios, as one might suspect, went on Twitter to make it clear that he didn’t take kindly to the notion of being beaten by a girl.
But this is Serena Williams. Whether or not she is the greatest athlete of her generation – man, woman, child, or otherwise – is a stupid conversation to have and a question about whether or not a woman can be as good as a man is a stupid one for McEnroe to have answered.