In a December 2016 interview, Serena Williams spoke of a time when she was uncomfortable about her body because she felt “too strong”. Such is the insidiousness of patriarchy that even Williams, whose reign over the tennis courts is well nigh unparalleled, felt apologetic about who she was — black, female and powerful. What, indeed, is “too strong” for a woman? She goes on to answer, “I had to take a second and think, ‘Who says I’m too strong?’ This body has enabled me to be the greatest player that I can be.” That body is on glorious, stunning display on the cover of the recent issue of Vanity Fair.
Williams was pregnant when she won her 23rd Grand Slam title, winning every match in straight sets. That has not stopped the carping or the volley of racist insults. John McEnroe has declared that Williams, far from being the greatest tennis player of all times, would be ranked 700, if she played with men. Another tennis player, Ilie Nastase, had a nasty gibe to make about the mixed race of the child of Williams and her partner, Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit.
The photograph by Annie Leibovitz, of the pregnant athlete for Vanity Fair, is as fierce as a forehand winner struck at the world. Williams, in the nude and heavily pregnant, is looking away from you. With her flowing tresses, her muscled arms, her glowing dark skin, the aplomb with which she reveals her belly, Williams defies the strictures of both race and gender. A black, pregnant woman, she is declaring her presence against the invisibility demanded of blacks and women — against the bloodless politeness demanded of an undefeated black woman.
Is she the greatest player of all time? Williams has always scoffed at the question. “If I were a man, I would have 100 per cent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago,” she has said. You might disagree, but has there ever been an athlete who has comprehensively taken on racism and sexism? The scoreline so far reads: 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. Here’s looking at you, girl.