Remembering Serena Williams: A trailblazer for African American Women

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By Carlos Perez

The US Open 2022 has just concluded and we were fortunate to see Serena Williams back in action for what was perhaps her last major tournament.

“I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” she said.

A ceremony was held on opening night of the tournament in her honor to celebrate her many accolades throughout her decades long career in tennis.

Williams has been breaking down barriers for women of color in the sport for over 27 years. The 23-time Grand Slam winner has shattered records and more than made the case for gender pay equality. She has inspired many young tennis players who are women of color such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff.

Williams was knocked out of the tournament in the third round in a three-set thriller to Ajla Tomljanovic. Watching the ceremony and Williams in action after all of these years was great.

However, after watching many of the other games in the tournament and witnessing Nick Kyrgios spit at his team with minimal consequence, I was reminded that only a few years ago we saw a major example of the inequalities of women of color in the sport.

Kyrgios was fined $7,500 for spitting and audible obscenities. This is the biggest fine of the tournament thus far, and while this may seem like a hefty fine, in 2018 after her US Open final against Osaka, Williams was fined $17,000.

“On Sunday, a day after the match, the tournament referee’s office docked Williams $10,000 for “verbal abuse” of chair umpire Carlos Ramos, $4,000 for being warned for coaching, and $3,000 for breaking her racket,” the Associated Press writes.

Yet, there are many instances of male players who berate the chair umpire without consequences. Most recently, Kyrgios smashed his racket on the court at his Sept. 4 match against Daniil Medvedev, more than once, and argued with the chair umpire without receiving any fines.

So why is it that men and women do not get punished equally for the same offense? Moreover, women get perceived differently when exhibiting the same behavior.

 Following Serena Williams’ 2018 US Open loss, The Herald Sun (Australian newspaper) made a caricature depicting Serena as an angry woman of color that went viral and was spread alongside hateful rhetoric that was quite prevalent under the administration of the time.

The cartoon displayed Serena Williams stomping on her racket in her 2018 US Open loss, with exaggerated features resembling the illustrations of the Jim Crow era. The illustration is an example of the way society can degrade women of color.

The illustration did spark backlash. “And it has set off an international storm of outrage, with athletes, fans and even J.K. Rowling denouncing the cartoon as sexist and racist,” per the New York Times.

Still, it requires more. It needs a call to action.

The retirement of Williams should be a reminder of not only her successful tennis career but of the great strides that she has made for women in sports and the reminder that we must continue to progress. Before her, Billie Jean King advocated for women, equal gender pay and LGBTQIA2+ rights.

Change comes with doing more than words. So, what can we do to level the playing field for all genders?

A good start would be to implement fairness across all aspects of the sport, including demanding equal consequences for inappropriate behavior.

Still, the superstar’s positive impact for women remains forever notable. The US Open retirement ceremony for Williams was joyous and filled with support and love. It highlighted her legacy, barriers broken down for women of color and her overall positive impact toward equality in the sport of tennis.

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