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Part III: Serena, the icon

By Myrtille Rambion, with Benedicte Mathieu   on   Saturday 09 July 2016
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Serena Williams equalled the 22 Grand Slam titles won by Stefanie Graf - only two behind Margaret Court’s all-time record. Impressive statistics, but they only tell half the story behind this exceptional champion. The American is so much more than the sum of her titles – she has become an icon who goes beyond the world of sport and who is responsible, in her own way, for the way society is advancing.

"Ladies, yes we can." These words were chosen by Michelle Obama to describe the life and the success of Serena Williams. They represent what the latter mean to her personally, and also beyond – for society in general. "Thanks to you, Serena, little girls are dreaming bigger," the First Lady added as she spoke about someone whom she describes as "(her) friend". "We are all proud of you," FLOTUS tweeted when the world No.1 won her 21st major at Wimbledon. This result also drew a reaction from another influential woman. Hillary Clinton posted on social media that "Serena Williams demonstrates once again that nothing is impossible if you work hard, dream big and never stop having goals to reach".

Proof, if any were needed, that Serena has now gone beyond the mere confines of sport. She is a model and an icon, because she is a sportswoman, and one that wins. Because she is African American, from a poor neighbourhood in Los Angeles, and because before her, tennis had had very few players with that kind of background. Because she is happy with her athletic body and beauty, because she is a symbol of success, both social and economic. Because her name alone has become an emblem. Serena Williams is a feminist in her own way, and definitely political, and this reality is not always easy to live with – or so it seems for other people, in any case. "In this respect, the cover of Sports Illustrated where she was named athlete of the year was a very strong image," said Béatrice Barbusse, a sociologist who for many years was the only woman to be president of a top-level men’s club in France (the US Ivry handball club), and who is now jointly responsible for the French Handball Federation’s project to bring the sport to women throughout the country. "Serena is seen sitting on a throne, looking the reader straight in the eye, demonstrating that a woman can be in a position of power. And as well as the image, there are the words. What is most interesting with Serena is that it is not just the visual aspect that is significant, there is also the spoken word, with a real consciousness of what she is and what she represents."

"I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them"

An illustration of this was the moving speech which she gave when she won the above-mentioned trophy as athlete of the year in New York last December. Serena was the first woman in 32 years to win the award, and the first African American. She chose to speak about racism – referring in particular to the history she had with the Indian Wells tournament – as well as cutting remarks regarding her physique which she had been the subject of throughout her career, and the obstacles that had at times been put in her path. "I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them. I look stronger," the world No.1 recalled. "I’ve had people look past me because of the colour of my skin, I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman, I’ve had critics say I [would] never win another Grand Slam when I was only at number seven — and here I stand today with 21 Grand Slam titles, and I’m still going.”

To conclude her speech, Serena quoted an extract from the iconic work 'Still I Rise' by the poet Maya Angelou, who is an emblematic figure in the civil rights struggle in the United States. "It signifies that she has a political conscience," explained editorialist and essayist Rokhaya Diallo, "and that she is well-read, has genuine cultural knowledge and knows her African American references. It’s not every day that sportsmen or women quote giants of literature. What is more, Maya Angelou is a woman who had a far-from-conventional lifestyle in the 1950s. She was a dancer, a prostitute, a single mother. A woman who was comfortable with that lifestyle at a time when it was difficult, and who had enormous intellectual and psychological strength. It was a wonderful reference."

Serena’s actions are not limited to what she says. For a number of years now, she has been supporting various charitable works via her foundation, most notably building schools in Africa. "She is a great example both for women and for society," says Dechy. "What Serena says counts," Mattek-Sands adds, "regardless of whether she’s talking about women’s rights or underlining a political position, everyone listens to her. She has earned this respect throughout the years. She has inspired and driven any number of young girls to take up a racquet and play tennis. She can look back on her life and be proud of everything that she has accomplished." And as Serena herself says, it ain’t over yet…

Lilian Thuram - football world cup winner, President of the Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against Racism

"Serena Williams is a really great champion. Her individual results place her at the very top of her discipline, and her personality takes her beyond the boundaries of sport. First of all, there is her family history and that of her sister, Venus. You have the impression that the two of them were programmed to become champions. It says a lot about their family ambitions. Their father decided that he was going to push his kids into that particular sport because it was a way of escaping from their life and their circumstances. Serena’s image is also a form of political positioning. History has seen people locked in by the colour of their skin, and Serena Williams – like Tiger Woods and Arthur Ashe back in the past – have given a significance and a value to black colour and black skin. Serena enables people to remove themselves from categorisation as well as breaking down prejudices and barriers linked to skin colour. What she is doing enables an entire generation to change their collective mindset, as women, as black women. And that is really thought-provoking, whether she likes it or not, because this positioning is out of her hands."

Rokhaya Diallo - editorialist, essayist and militant

"Serena Williams is not a militant, but she is politically conscious. She is a woman who is proud of her identity as a black woman. There is an English word which perfectly sums her up – unapologetic. She helps to feed an ego which has been mistreated – namely that of all black women who have been placed at the bottom of the beauty scale. She doesn’t ask for forgiveness. She keeps forging ahead, taking on full responsibility, she’s on the cover of magazines in really sexy dresses, she doesn’t hide her body – she continues to make the most of it. She is a new figure of femininity who refuses to accept the codes which force certain women to undervalue their performances and their abilities, and instead to fit certain physical criteria. As a woman, she is extremely powerful. And these are not qualities that people look for in women… But strength and grace are not incompatible, and it’s important to try to associate the two. Serena Williams is a feminist force. She is making a real contribution to women being at the top. She is a source of inspiration for those who want to excel and want to offer alternative ways for women to succeed. And from that point of view, she is a woman that counts."

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