In The Departed – the movie that finally got Martin Scorcese an Oscar – the first words spoken are from Jack Nicholson’s baleful Frank Costello: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me”, he declares in a racist opening monologue.
You may wonder what any of this has to do with Serena Williams? Well, read on…
When walking into a torrent of socialised bigotry, some arm themselves with coruscating words. Others use still defiance. In Serena’s case, she uses a tennis racquet. Ever since her father, Richard put one in her – and Venus’s – hands, each swing has been a rapier riposte to those who have a straight-line idea of what a black woman can be.
Recently speaking about the importance of black pop culture icons, Chris Rock explained that while Tom Hanks is an amazing actor, Denzel Washington is a god to his people. This is partly because there is more at stake when an oppressed person does anything. They become the emissary for an entire group treated as less than human.
While discourse around how society treats Serena as an interloper is significant, that’s not what played on my mind after she won her 21st Grand Slam with victory at the All England Club last Saturday. Yes, each trophy brings disdain, regular as clockwork. It appeared again last weekend, a topic that Ahmed Olayinka Sule has already explored on this site. But, to misquote Frank Ocean; “What’s a mob to a queen?”
However, we must be mindful not to place Serena on a plinth of perfection. As journalist, Lindsay Gibbs pointed out, “…let’s remember one thing: Serena is human. She’s just far better at dealing with her humanity than the rest of us.”
Despite winning all three of the available Grand Slams in 2015, what’s curious is that Serena hasn’t operated at her best in any of them. My suspicion is that she’s increasingly cognisant of her liminal place in the game: getting a second ‘Serena Slam’; a US Open from becoming only the fourth woman to win all four Slams in a calendar year; chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors.
From leading 5-1 in the second set, people – or me, at least – thought the Wimbledon final was over, guilty of conflating dominance with ease. Garbine Muguruza showed heart and skill to reel Serena back to 5-4. It’s important to remember that taking the attainment of success as read doesn’t make the process any easier for the one doing the attaining.
It’s in these situations when an athlete is required to think with clarity in an environment that breeds the fog of uncertainty. It’s this ability which is overlooked in the reductive and bigoted analysis where Serena is concerned. She’s not just about power, but also athleticism, poise, and mental focus, backed up by a serve that, pound-for-pound, is arguably the finest shot in the history of the sport.
Debates about the G.O.A.T will continue, but has there ever been a more influential tennis player than Serena? Like Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Serena has made her environment a product of her. Women’s tennis has changed irrevocably, and that’s down to the Williams family. Serena is more than successful. She’s transformative.
She isn’t invincible, and will lose matches now and then. But Serena has made the woman on the other side of the net somewhat irrelevant, because she’s ascended to a higher plateau than the win/loss column.
We watch to see her compete against something bigger than a fellow tennis player. We watch to see her compete against legacy, against memory, against history. At this stage of her career, her opponent is one that is intangible and amorphous. But I’ll still back her to beat it.
 – As is often the case with Rock, his perspicacity is sullied with a lacquer of – as Jamilah Lemieux put it – black power being for black men.
 – A record I’m especially keen to see broken, given Court’s homophobic views.
 – Personally, I think a strong case can be made for Serena being the best ever, but not an unequivocal one.
 – Not just the tenor of the women’s game, but think of the increase in black players on the tour in the past few years. Especially black women.
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A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
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