I was surprised by how emotional I got watching Serena Williams in the recent U.S. Open tennis finals. I don’t think of myself as a “sports person,” and though I’ve followed tennis since I was a kid, I never thought of paying to see it live—until Serena Williams became a lead player.
Why do I care so deeply about Serena Williams and how she performs in her tennis matches? It wasn’t just that I spent more money than I thought was reasonable to watch this match with my parents. (My Father and I watched her win her first U.S. Open live 20 years ago.) It’s not only that, like me, she’s a black woman—though I’ve always cheered on Venus, something about Serena makes me even more invested in aces, drop shots and double-faults. It’s not only because she has won more than her sister—and by the way, that’s more than any man and almost every woman tennis player in the history of the sport.
As I noticed that I was holding my breath during the final games of the 2019 U.S. Open championship, I realized it’s not only anything—it’s all of Serena, dark and often nappy like Venus, but rounder than her sister and less conventionally beautiful, that I identify with.
Why Serena? Because she didn’t come from the “right” class background for tennis, or from a pile of money for coaches and trainers to prepare her for what would become her career. Because at the beginning, she wasn’t as gracious or as poised as Venus. Because there are so many moments, sometimes entire hours or days later, when we realize we said or did the “wrong” thing—when we feel like an imposter.
Why Serena? Because she plays a historically white sport—an individual sport at that. Like so many other black women, she goes about her profession alone, in a sea of whiteness. Because white men often cheer against us, and can’t handle it when we were better than them.
Why Serena? Because a skinny white woman claims to have a “rivalry” with her, even though Serena’s beaten her in 20 out of 22 matches. Because sometimes white women swish past us, riding our work to more money and recognition than we might ever see.
Why Serena? Because she dominated when people were hurling slurs at her like they were tennis balls, and because she continues to dominate now when she’s often the crowd favorite. Because often the world seems against us—only to say Itoldyouso when we lose and to claim to have always supported us when we win.
Why Serena? Because she seems like a regular black woman—so regular that she almost died immediately after giving birth to her daughter. Because we’re three times as likely as white women to die because of pregnancy complications.
Why Serena? Because we’ve gotten to watch her grow into her purpose and power—not perfectly, but in her own way. Because when she lost that U.S. Open final, and the championship, she was generous, even gracious, with the 19-year-old Canadian who had just beaten her idol to win her first Grand Slam tournament.
Why Serena? For every time we use all of our physical and mental strength and win, blowing the competition away. And for every time we pour our whole being into something and fail.
Why Serena? Because I can’t help myself. Because we can’t help ourselves—we invest our dreams in her, even though we know she has to bear our hopes and anxieties with all of the other pressures on her. Because so many of us see ourselves in her—the selves that aren’t fully welcome in the places we most feel at home, the selves who aren’t ashamed to want success, to want to win; the selves who on our best days believe in our beauty and brilliance and power, though we don’t always win, and we don’t always get it right and most days aren’t our best days.
Why Serena? Because no loss can erase her pyramid of large and small successes. It’s a lesson for every big, dark black girl and woman to remember—and everyone else, too.