Through the lens of women's tennis legend Serena Williams, this article examines the roles of masculinization and feminization as they relate to Black womanhood in sport. Over the course of much of her career, Williams was characterized as “aggressive,” someone who “bludgeoned her way” to success. But after the 2016 and 2017 announcements of her engagement and pregnancy, respectively, media characterizations shifted toward narratives traditionally aligned with femininity. Throughout, media discussion of Williams has been rooted in surveillance of her body, behavior, and closest relationships. Using feminist critical discourse analysis, this article argues that the noted shift in characterization was linked to Williams's strategic performance of docility and engagement with respectability politics, tied closely to her 2015 return to the Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament as well as her adoption of the traditionally feminized roles of wife and mother.

Feminist sport scholars who have spent time analyzing the portrayal of female athletes have expressed concern that “sport remains a terrain for the reproduction of dominant forms of white masculinity.”1 Additionally, there is concern that female athletes are persistently sexualized in media representations to appease an audience that is perceived as dominated by males who “want to think of women as objects of desire, or perhaps as mothers, but not as powerful, competitive athletes.”2 This scholarship, however, focuses on women emblematic of preferred femininity, which assumes whiteness and cultural markers such as passivity and frailty. R. W. Connell's notion of “emphasized femininity” illuminates this concept, positing that it is “the pattern of femininity which is given the most cultural and ideological support[:] … patterns such as sociability … compliance … [and] sexual receptivity [to men].”3 Black women occupy a different cultural space in the collective consciousness, one that is marked by such stereotypes as “all-welcoming Black mammies, smiling domestic servants, hot-to-trot jezebels and field workers.”4 Black women are not understood in the same way white women are, and thus applying the same expectations to both white and Black sportswomen ignores the unique circumstances facing the latter.

This article explores media portrayals of Black sportswomen through the lens of Serena Williams, whose body, behavior, and closest relationships have long been surveilled in the media. The gatekeepers of the tennis community critique her for being outside the preferred norms of the space they guard, suggesting that if she were just more respectful of the standards, there would be less to critique. This suggests both that Black women are most comfortably understood in the context of their relationships, and, more specifically, that performances of Black womanhood are not free from scrutiny until they align with socially constructed white femininity—only in those circumstances are they perceived as worthy of recognition in mainstream spaces. With the 2016 and 2017 announcements of Williams's engagement, pregnancy, and wedding, media coverage of her increasingly focused on historically feminized qualities, whereas prior to her engagement, Williams had largely refrained from discussing romantic relationships in public. In an October 2016 interview, for instance, she asserted that she keeps her dating life “totally separate and totally private.”5

This paper will argue that the shift in public perception of Williams has been related to her acceptance of traditionally feminized descriptors, including docility, wifeliness, and motherhood. Through the lens of her apparent acquiescence to these roles, Williams can be considered in the context of respectability politics, a term first coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to describe a “promotion of temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” as part of “uplift politics” targeting African Americans during the Progressive Era.6 Scrutiny comparing her to idealized notions of white womanhood has shifted as she has moved toward embodiment of these notions in public spaces. Consideration of the discourse of femininity, blackness, and the circumstances facing a nonwhite female athlete is necessary to understand Williams's place in the world of professional tennis and, more broadly, US culture.

The following research analyzes media coverage of Williams over the course of her career, focusing on four key moments: her first Grand Slam win in 1999; her first extended peak around 2002, when she completed her first “Serena Slam” (a term she coined for winning all four professional Grand Slam tennis tournaments in a row, although not necessarily all in the same calendar year), and the subsequent career slump; her resurgence in 2012; and the present, which will be referred to as the Greatest of All Time or GOAT phase, during which public opinion of her has softened. The coverage selected for analysis focuses on Williams's participation in the Women's Tennis Association tour, specifically the Grand Slam tournaments. The research will address how opinion-leader-level mass media engages race, femininity, and their intersections in sport. How do these outlets discuss Williams in the latest phase of her career compared with earlier moments, and what racialized or gendered components are influencing the commentary?

Critical discourse analysis was selected because it provides a mode of examination of racialized and gendered narratives by looking at themes from a variety of texts.7 Textual analysis is a key component of this because it interrogates “the denotative meanings and make[s] explicit the latent meanings” of racial and gendered representation in the selected media.8 I have selected articles that feature Williams as their primary subject so as to provide a close reading of her portrayal, and I focus on three US publications, each representing a substantively different approach to journalism: the New York Times, a newspaper with global influence; Sports Illustrated, a leading sports publication; and Vogue, a high-end fashion and lifestyle magazine.

SURVEILLANCE OF FEMALE ATHLETES AND PREFERRED FEMININITY

Serena Williams's body has been the subject of a great deal of discourse. Described in such offensive terms as a “female hulk with a bum to match,” as well as in coded ways that imply a lack of discipline tied to natural athleticism, for instance a “classically muscled natural athlete with a fierce netside manner,” Williams is one of the most scrutinized athletes of our time, in part because she is a Black woman operating in a predominantly white space.9 As observed by Ayanna Dozier, an “overwhelming focus on Black women's bodies as representative of the race and … changing the appearance of Black women through the adoption of respectable qualities would … counter prevailing notions of immoral behavior.”10 Her body is routinely described in manners consistent with the “field worker” narrative articulated by Patricia Hill Collins, as well as Britney C. Cooper's comments about Black bodies as “‘naturally athletic,’ ‘more powerful,’ ‘more wild,’ ‘less thoughtful,’ and ‘less strategic,’” and Black female bodies as “(un)naturally strong, invulnerable, and unattractive.'”11 As a Black sportswoman, Williams is subject to a heightened degree of surveillance.

As explored by Susan K. Cahn, the “specter of the mannish woman” has followed female athletes since the growth of public sport in the 1920s. And as white, middle-class women decreasingly participated in athletics that were deemed undignified for ladies, Black women were not discouraged in quite the same way. Through experience as wageworkers, community leaders, and heads of household, Black women “did not tie femininity to a specific, limited set of activities and attributes defined as separate and opposite from masculinity,” and instead created an ideal of womanhood cultivated with attention to “struggle, strength, family commitment, involvement, and moral integrity.”12 This created space within Black communities for consideration of athletics as a reputable pursuit for Black women, but in many mainstream spaces, female sporting figures continue to face scrutiny, as Toni Bruce has outlined. Sportswomen, according to Bruce, are subject to a range of interactions that male athletes are not. This includes coverage that focuses on non-sport-related aspects of their lives, specifically expectations centered on heterosexuality, appropriate femininity, and sexualization.13 Coverage of Williams since she entered professional tennis in the mid-1990s has often focused on her transgressions against the preferred femininity (her demeanor, physical appearance, and playing style) and her relationships (familial and romantic), a near-perfect illustration of Bruce's assertion. The efforts to define Williams in the context of traditionally feminized markers that are relationship-based, despite her articulated emphasis on career, suggest an effort to make her body docile through performance of feminine societal roles.14

Several feminist critics have echoed Cheryl L. Cole's assertion “that women's physicality and participation in sport potentially offers the space for oppositional or transgressive practices and a site for progressive body politics since it challenges the passivity inscribed on women's bodies.”15 This line of thinking is contingent upon a specific reading of femininity that is consistent with dominant femininity, which can be understood as an ideal where “notions of female vulnerability, sexual inaccessibility, and submissiveness readily collude with normative cultural versions of White, heterosexist femininity.”16 This dominant, preferred femininity categorically excludes women of color, and in so doing facilitates the advancement of a hierarchy in which women closest to said femininity are favored over women who are further away from achieving the embodied ideals.

BLACKNESS IN WHITE SPACES

Despite extensive discussion of her impressive professional record, which features thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, twenty-three of which are singles titles (the most singles Grand Slam titles held by any male or female player in the Open Era), commentators still challenge the proposition that Williams is one of tennis's all-time greatest players.17 There is continued trepidation about allowing Serena, a Black female athlete, into the elite circle, even conversationally. This seems to correspond with racial attitudes in the post–civil rights United States, a period of time “marked by Whites' increased sense of anxiety about the undermining of White racial domination.” Indeed, the “post-racial” era is “marked by the emergence of a ‘new politics of containment,’ made manifest through the application of various formations of power such that surveillance has become an important method of social control.”18 Tennis's history as a space where elitism of race, class, and gender are the reigning order means that Serena Williams and her equally famous tennis-playing sister, Venus, are a microcosmic version of the racial tensions described in the preceding quote by Delia D. Douglas: their presence signifies the entry of an unanticipated and unwelcome presence in the form of female blackness. The concept of surveillance, articulated by Douglas to include mass media as a pedagogical device that serves as a social agent and reinforces “everyday” racialized discrimination, is elemental in understanding why media attitudes toward Williams provide an important lens through which to examine her role as a Black female athlete. Media reproduces and informs, as Douglas puts it, “structures of domination.”19

In the predominantly white tennis space, commentators, members of the media, and past players have served as gatekeepers, utilizing surveillance of attitudes, successes, losses, and physicality to denigrate the potential legacy of both sisters, but especially Serena. As their careers progressed, the media began to frame Venus as the serious and intellectual foil to Serena, the frivolous sometimes tennis player, sometimes fashion designer, sometimes actor.20 After Serena had knee surgery in late 2003 and lost a half-sister to a murder that same year, her career experienced a decline—a decline that was, unfairly, “attributed to lack of discipline: she made too many cameos in television shows, attended too many club openings, spent too much time designing her new line of formalwear.”21 Douglas Robson, writing for USA Today, noted that “despite her absence from the tour, Serena was hardly unseen,” and described her activities over her eight-month break, highlighting her visibility at awards shows and other venues associated with Hollywood personalities before even acknowledging the death of Yetunde Price, who was described as her “half-sister” and “a frequent member of [the Williams sisters'] close-knit entourage.”22 This description both minimized Serena's familial connection and highlighted the perceived frivolity of her actions in what “ought” to have been a time of grief. This example is one of many that has insinuated lack of discipline to racially code Serena as inferior to tennis standards. What follows analyzes other media moments to consider the shifting narratives that have swirled around her.

EARLY PROFESSIONAL CAREER (1999–2001)

As Serena Williams entered the professional women's tennis circuit in the 1990s, media coverage focused primarily on her spunk, power, and beaded hairstyle. Each of these areas of emphasis highlighted her outsider status with respect to established tennis community norms. The New York Times covered her 1999 US Open win over Martina Hingis by focusing on her attitude in the accompanying press conference. The bulk of the article depicted Williams as a young, immature player who “all but shouted out ‘Food Fight!’ on the pristine grounds of the National Tennis Center,” rose to taunts from other players, and engaged in trash talk despite the “pristine” setting. Writer Selena Roberts twice characterized Williams's comments about Hingis as “sly,” and called her personality almost “carbonated,” connoting insincerity. The article also talked about her “articulate but cunning” ability to “return a dig” and constructed her as conniving, driving this point by saying she “all but hissed” when discussing a slight against her family.23 While not an overtly negative piece, the article discussed her demeanor over her tennis prowess, and highlighted qualities the author identified as immature and potentially untrustworthy—two characteristics often ascribed to people of color to otherize and devalue.

Following her victory over Hingis at the US Open, Sports Illustrated profiled Williams twice (in both pieces as one half of the Williams sisters). The first of these, appearing immediately after the win and titled “Father Knew Best,” profiled a family from Compton, California (which has its own, sometimes problematic popular-culture-based connotations of being tied to “ghetto life” and “West Coast rap”) in which the father is unafraid of pitting the sisters against each other. Writer S. L. Price framed Serena as the product of her father's unconventional methods of “boast[ing],” building “hype” and “stir[ring] the pot,” all characterizations rather apart from the usually prim, proper world of tennis.24 The tennis space, connected with “resorts, country clubs, and tennis academies,” is one with a heritage of “race, gender, and class elitism in the United States” and is correspondingly a space where middle- and upper-class whiteness is normalized and preferred over other identities.25 Black female athletes are particularly otherized in this space and can readily be understood as Nirmal Puwar's conception of “space invaders.”26 Puwar theorizes that since Black women are required to overcome the “perceived inherent masculinity of the sporting field and the stereotypes around Black femininity,” they can be understood as “space invaders,” individuals who do not fit within the norms of their given space.27 Serena Williams regularly asserts that she is herself, and the simple act of being an unapologetic Black woman in a space that replicates racialized hegemonic structures has made her suspect.

The other Sports Illustrated article from 1999 highlighted Williams's “hair beads and gargantuan groundstrokes.”28 The way her strength is portrayed is consistent with unnaturally strong characteristics often ascribed to Black women—a narrative that erases the discipline required to train for professional tennis. This myth that blackness necessarily brings with it natural athleticism facilitates and propagates a different “set of assumptions than White women [face] about their femininity (or lack thereof) and their sporting ability.”29 Attention to her hairstyle furthers the othering process.

Williams's first major feature in Vogue, a piece by Julia Reed that appeared in the May 1998 issue, continued the trend of situating Williams in the context of family by highlighting her and her sister (fig. 1). The piece mentions their father, citing his resistance to outside coaches and the traditionally accepted pathway to the Women's Tennis Association.30 This discussion further depicts the family as insular and separate from the world they seek to enter. By highlighting their interests outside of tennis and their relationship with their family, the author works to feminize the sisters, focusing on curating relatability within the context of the preferred femininity. The story, entitled “Sisters at Court,” highlighted the sisters' perceived lack of focus, and suggested that they “make up for [the lack of focus] with pizzazz, with their beaded hairdos, up-to-the-minute-clothes, and spunky sound bites.”31 While the feature is not explicitly negative, it relies on coded references suggesting that the Williamses are not focused enough to compete at the top level. This type of positioning fits into Patricia Hill Collins's “new politics of containment,” which relies on racialized discrimination that functions within a post-racial landscape: the continued references to a lack of discipline make the sisters seem unfit to enter the world they were, unbeknownst to everyone, on the cusp of taking over.

FIGURE 1.

Venus and Serena Williams photographed together, as they often were during this phase of their careers. This shoot took place in 1999 in Rome for a feature in Sports Illustrated, and was reproduced in the publication's recent article entitled: “Why the Williams Sisters Are One of the Most Underrated Stories in Sports History.” They weren't considered underrated when this shoot took place but this image was utilized again recently. Image courtesy Sports Illustrated / Bob Martin.

FIGURE 1.

Venus and Serena Williams photographed together, as they often were during this phase of their careers. This shoot took place in 1999 in Rome for a feature in Sports Illustrated, and was reproduced in the publication's recent article entitled: “Why the Williams Sisters Are One of the Most Underrated Stories in Sports History.” They weren't considered underrated when this shoot took place but this image was utilized again recently. Image courtesy Sports Illustrated / Bob Martin.

Reed also references “crime-ridden Compton,” which gestures toward the “regressive ‘ghettocentrism’” articulated by David L. Andrews, Ron L. Mower, and Michael L. Silk as “refer[ring] to the aesthetic and spatially grounded fetishizing and essentializing of black sporting bodies for their perceived, and indeed conjoined, athletic ability and urban authenticity.”32 Several references in this article and others narrativize the sisters as a product of a racially charged space. This codes them without addressing their race directly, which is in keeping with the notion of “soft otherizing” described by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva as a product of the ideology of color blindness. Bonilla-Silva suggests that color blindness is akin to “racism lite,” and does the work of racism through softly otherizing, for example, using suggestions that people of color “are behind because they do not work hard enough” or “instead of viewing interracial marriage as wrong on a straight racial basis, it regards it as ‘problematic,’ because of concerns over the children, location or extra burden it places on couples.”33 Color blindness does the work of maintaining white privilege through establishing institutions based on a nebulous conception of fairness and equality to be enforced through surveillance. The post-racial sporting space illustrates the power of color blindness in an institution.

The portrayal of both Williams sisters during this period emphasized their status as outsiders to the world of tennis, to be monitored by members of the established tennis community. Outsider status was cemented through a focus on father Richard Williams and his proud and “boastful” demeanor; his resistance to following the recommended pathways to success and continued bucking of traditional behavior were cast as threatening to the established order. For instance he is quoted in the Vogue article telling the sisters to simply “be themselves, [and] not to have any inhibitions,” but such a comment would have been received as challenging the white sporting establishment—it positions the sisters as inherently controversial.34

This otherized and nonconforming position is where the sisters were when they attended the 2001 Indian Wells Tournament in Indian Wells, California. They were slated to play each other in the semifinals, but shortly before the match, Venus pulled out because of a knee injury. The Williams family was already suspect in the tennis community thanks to their perceived, and media-fueled, reputation as untraditional outsiders, their proud demeanor regarding being “something new” for the tennis world, and their strength, which as we have seen was characterized as superhuman. A theory (based on an already-existing cloud of unfounded rumors that their father fixed their matches) circulated that Richard Williams had decided that Serena should win, and that Venus's injury was fake. This demonstrates another tendency of hegemonic racial structures in the United States: to weaken the credibility of Black people by suggesting that they are untrustworthy.

Right before the finals match, as Venus and Richard Williams entered the stadium to watch Serena compete against Kim Clijsters, a chorus of boos overtook the space. While walking to his seat, Richard turned and shook his fist at the audience, and he later asserted that he heard racist slurs during this moment as well. After the match, throughout which booing intensified as the crowd actively cheered against Serena, Venus substantiated the story: “I heard whatever he heard.”35 But media commentators were skeptical about the racist language, at most acknowledging that the crowd was motivated by their “emotions” and that they were “surly.”36 After winning the tournament, Serena vowed never to return to Indian Wells. For the first time, the tennis world was challenged to directly confront its race-related attitudes toward the family.

FIRST SERENA SLAM (2002–2004)

By 2002, Serena Williams was certified tennis royalty. Over the course of the year, she won the French Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon in London. She defeated her sister in the finals of each, which set the stage for the next phase of Serena's career, during which she was undeniably at the top of the Women's Tennis Association. She beat her sister once more at the Australian Open in 2003, and in so doing, she achieved her goal of holding all four of the major singles titles simultaneously, completing her first self-dubbed “Serena Slam.” But tennis commentators, players, and audiences were growing fatigued of the Williams sisters' domination and constant presence in the finals of the major tournaments, to the point where, when Serena had to miss the US Open in 2003 due to an injury, fellow competitor Justine Henin-Hardenne was quoted as saying, “There will be no all-Williams final, and I think that's positive. … I think people are happy.”37 This quote was presented in the New York Times as a noncontroversial viewpoint consistent with broader opinions. Coverage during this period simultaneously acknowledged Serena's successes and belittled her talent as not based in discipline or focus (some stories employed comparisons to Venus's adherence to elements of preferred femininity to emphasize this point). Additionally, questions were raised about the reasons for the broad dislike and, in some cases, weariness of the Williams sisters and their successes, but members of the established tennis community continued to discount race as a factor in the lack of tennis community support.

In a January 2003 New York Times article, Christopher Clarey covered the Serena Slam achievement and the Australian Open finals. The article is noteworthy because it discusses the possibility of tennis fans' racism toward the Williams sisters, then dismisses that possibility almost in the same breath. Clarey paraphrases (as opposed to directly quoting) Oracene Price, the Williamses' mother, as saying that she believes race may be a factor in audience response to the sisters: “There is more behind the ambivalence than just a craving for something new and a desire to support the underdog.” Yet he discounts her interpretation of the boos, reporting on it but invalidating it via various non-racialized reasons why the crowd might root for anyone other than the Williams sisters, including Serena's “reputation on the WTA Tour for making excuses in defeat.”38 The allusion to the perception of Serena as not taking responsibility for loss reinforced the perspective of her as lacking the requisite discipline to operate properly in the professional tennis world.

Another piece in the New York Times during this peak in Williams's career likewise acknowledged Price's assertion that the boos and whistles at the French Open were racially motivated, then discredited Price's theory, explaining that the author's “own feeling, from afar, is that many forces were at play in this unpleasant outburst in Paris—and that race was probably way down the list.” This comment, combined with a dismissal of racial tension being a “limitation … of the past,” acknowledged race but buried it via a convenient post-racial sensibility.39

Another side effect of the Williamses' winning streak began to take shape around this time. Both sisters were still surveilled both on and off court, but the media began drawing ever greater distinctions between them, as exemplified by a 2003 Sports Illustrated article titled “The Serena Show.” Reporter L. Jon Wertheim discussed Serena's rise, generally characterizing her as the “fun” alternative to the more subdued Venus:

Venus is the one who wears a visor that recalls a Grosse Pointe country club ladies' scramble; Serena is the one with the navel rings who posed for a certain magazine's annual swimsuit issue. Venus is the one who won't use language stronger than “Oh, dear”; Serena is the one who was fined for uttering an “audible obscenity” (hint: It began with the letter f) during a match earlier this year. Venus is the one who opened her own interior design business and is usually home for the evening by eight; Serena is the one who bought a condo in Los Angeles, talks gleefully of having just “scored a movie” and employs an acting coach.40

These distinctions are of particular interest here for the way in which they make Serena even more “otherized”: the implication is that if Venus is able to exist in the respectable, more demure ways expected of a female tennis professional, Serena should be capable of achieving the same docility but does not. She rejects it. Wertheim also depicts Serena as the less disciplined sister, which emphasizes the point that she does not naturally belong in the tennis space.

Elsewhere in the article Wertheim also paints Serena as superhuman, a common tactic in othering Black athleticism. He acknowledges sports media's history (up to this point) of presenting Serena as a “consummate tennis outsider” and suggests that a shift is occurring in which “Serena's “‘irreverence’ has become her ‘taking the path less traveled.’ Her ‘arrogance’ has been recast as ‘confidence.’ Her ‘brute force’ has been upgraded to ‘sleek power.’ Outfits once described as ‘lapses in taste’ are now ‘bold and provocative.’”41 Such backhanded compliments, followed up with the suggestion that she is “sanding her rough edges,” highlight the critiques Serena commonly received while noting that she has begun to perform in a manner more suited to the preferred femininity.

In a nearly contemporaneous 2003 Vogue interview feature titled “Trophy Girl,” Lisa DePaulo highlighted Serena's affinity for getting her hair done, her love of fashion and shopping, her closet, her love life, and her adoration of her older sister (fig. 2).42 Focusing on these elements worked to make Williams more relatable to the magazine's audience, and the implication is that through her interest in and performance of these historically feminized interests, she falls in line with preferred femininity. DePaulo's focus on these aspects also presents an exercise in surveillance as a measure to bring Williams into line with this preferred femininity.

FIGURE 2.

A 2003 Vogue feature emphasizes Williams's femininity as an important component of the “real” Serena. Lisa DePaulo, “Trophy Girl,” Vogue, April 2003, 334–400. Image courtesy Vogue / Annie Leibovitz.

FIGURE 2.

A 2003 Vogue feature emphasizes Williams's femininity as an important component of the “real” Serena. Lisa DePaulo, “Trophy Girl,” Vogue, April 2003, 334–400. Image courtesy Vogue / Annie Leibovitz.

This phase of Williams's career was marked by depictions of her as more frivolous, superficial, and naturally athletic than her more serious and disciplined sister. The media's continued tendency to pit the sisters against each other emphasized their presence in the tennis space as still defined by otherness; tellingly, in many of the articles, they are only ever compared to each other. The prevailing narrative constructed Serena as the more naturally physical of the two, which served to imply that there was still room for improved discipline. The media's interest in her feminine side (as demonstrated by that first feature in Vogue) celebrated her success but also served to invalidate her status as a serious, disciplined athlete.

THIRTY AND THRIVING (2010–2012)

Between 2004 and 2010, Serena Williams experienced a valley, a brief peak, then another valley in her career trajectory. Following her knee surgery in late 2003 and the death of her sister Yetunde Price, the media generally portrayed her as a female athlete who had given in to the distractions of being a “crossover celebrity” and as lacking the discipline that would have been required for the historic career she once seemed destined for. Chris Evert, a tennis great of a previous generation and thus an established gatekeeper in the world of professional tennis, penned an open letter to Williams in 2006 chiding her for expending energy on other interests.43 In the following years, Williams had some successes and some setbacks, then consistently built a winning streak again starting in 2012, much to the tennis world's surprise, since by that point she was thirty years old.

During this phase, masculinization, surveillance, and attempts to feminize Williams still dominated media coverage around her performance. She began to be discussed as the greatest player of her generation, yet most descriptions still surveilled her appearance and femininity (or perceived lack thereof), for example pointing out occasions in which she “look[ed] even more imposing than usual.”44 In a New York Times story discussing her resurgence, Christopher Clarey highlighted how she “has been a much less consistent force and presence … because of injuries and illnesses, because of lifestyle choices and strategic choices and because of her traditionally limited enthusiasm for competitive tennis once the U.S. Open, the year's final Grand Slam tournament, ends each September.”45 This characterization portrayed her, once again, as lacking the requisite discipline. Her decision to avoid assimilation created tension as observers struggled to categorize her as consistent with the dominant ideal: the normalized female athlete defined by the preferred femininity.

Sports Illustrated also featured Williams in the context of her career resurgence, but writer L. Jon Wertheim took the conversation to a new level: she might be “not just the greatest female player of her generation—she's the greatest of all time.” This assertion was one of the first of its kind by a member of the tennis establishment. However, as was common among many other articles during this period, amid acknowledgment of her prowess and tennis acumen lurked several masculinizing references: for instance “signature grunt,” a “bellicose shriek that starts deep in her belly,” suggesting masculine aggression and warlike behavior. Wertheim also focused on how powerfully Williams asserted herself on the tennis court, as when she “flexed her left arm, kicked up a leg and dropped to a knee.”46 These actions, according to the conception of feminine bodily comportment outlined by Iris Marion Young, are directly the converse of expected female bodily comportment. Young articulates the socially constructed and reinforced manners in which women carry themselves differently than men do, as when they “often do not perceive themselves as capable of lifting and carrying heavy things, pushing and shoving with significant force, pulling, squeezing, grasping or twisting with force.” Due to this self-perception, women “tend not to put their whole bodies into engagement in a physical task with the same ease and naturalness as men.”47 When women carry themselves in manners that contradict these physical manifestations of the preferred white femininity, they are challenging and even threatening the established hierarchy.

In Vogue during this period, Williams was selected for a cover photo shoot alongside fellow 2012 American Olympians Hope Solo and Ryan Lochte (fig. 3).48 Although there is not a feature on Williams in the issue, her highly stylized inclusion on the cover of a leading fashion magazine in a swimsuit warrants acknowledgment: during this period, she was a globally recognizable female athlete, and the magazine styled her in a distinctly feminine manner so as to fit in with Solo and alongside Lochte, which all together has the effect of making her body docile.

FIGURE 3.

Vogue's June 2012 issue marked Serena's first time on the cover. She is styled in a feminine manner and runs alongside fellow Olympians Ryan Lochte and Hope Solo. “National Treasures,” Vogue, June 2012, C1. Image courtesy Vogue / Annie Leibovitz.

FIGURE 3.

Vogue's June 2012 issue marked Serena's first time on the cover. She is styled in a feminine manner and runs alongside fellow Olympians Ryan Lochte and Hope Solo. “National Treasures,” Vogue, June 2012, C1. Image courtesy Vogue / Annie Leibovitz.

Even though commentators at this moment were beginning to use phrases like “greatest of all time,” I differentiate this period in Williams's career from the GOAT phase in that the media still seemed intent on softly otherizing her. Although it was widely acknowledged that Williams was possibly accomplishing something that no one else had in the history of the Women's Tennis Association, surveillance in the form of comments about her strength, demeanor, and perceived lesser commitment to the sport were still pervasive.

GOAT PERIOD (2015–PRESENT)

Beginning in 2015, with her announcement that she would return to Indian Wells after a fourteen-year boycott, Williams entered a new phase of her career as defined by the media, marked by her newfound “flexibility,” maturity, and poise.49 As referenced earlier, the controversy surrounding the sisters' earlier participation at Indian Wells had had racist undertones that ultimately perpetuated harmful stereotypes of distrust of Black people; specifically, the ease with which the crowd cottoned to the idea of a Williams family conspiracy, despite denials from the family, spoke volumes. The media continued to simultaneously acknowledge and undermine or ignore assertions made by the Williams family about racist language hurled at them from the crowd that day, effectively destabilizing any serious consideration of their veracity.50 When Serena announced her decision to return to Indian Wells, it effectively let the tennis community off the hook for its past transgressions, even if these had indeed been blatant racism. In this moment, Williams outwardly acquiesced—she performed in conformance with preferred feminine respectability by setting aside an anger that, prior to this moment, had forced members of the tennis community to reckon with their relationship with her blackness. In her return, Williams fell into line with the prescribed norms of the environment. It signaled the arrival of what the media registered as a new, more mature Serena.

In coverage about the return to Indian Wells (now renamed BNP Paribas Open), the media focused more on the theory that the Williams family had fixed the 2001 match than the undercurrent of racism present in the stadium that day, even going so far as to assert that by “return[ing] to this tournament, Williams was effectively asserting her independence from her father and her sister Venus, who stayed away.”51 This assertion, which had little to do with Serena's stated intentions, pulled at the seams of another seeming source of media anxiety over Williams's career: the tight-knit, insular nature of the Williams family.52 Several writers discussed the Williamses' tendency to be polite but not overtly friendly to their competition, and to be glib or obtuse in interview settings, as well as the family's closeness. Serena's alleged distancing from her family, demonstrated through her return to Indian Wells, marked another important component of the maturation narrative ascribed to her during this period.

From her return to Indian Wells onward, media commentators shifted to a more generous reading of Williams and her accomplishments, one less focused on perceived lack of discipline. In exchange for moving past the Indian Wells incident, she was deemed worthy of entering the closely guarded garden of tennis greatness. A Sports Illustrated article about her return to Indian Wells, for example, opened by chronicling what the author called the “catalog of Serena Williams' tennis virtues” and adding to the list flexibility, due to her “pivot gracefully” from a position long held.53 The characterization of her decision to return to Indian Wells as simply “flexible” and “graceful” erased the undercurrent of racism that she and her family had long maintained was present that earlier day. Per Bonilla-Silva, discounting prejudicial experiences of Black people is a mechanism of maintaining the pretense of color blindness; the use of the mechanism is noteworthy here in that it was delivered as a kind of backhanded compliment paid to Williams. Alongside this type of discourse, though, was more coverage engaged with Williams's agency. For example, Claudia Rankine's brilliant profile of Serena, tennis, and Black excellence in the New York Times called attention to her agency through highlighting Williams's commitment to playing for herself but also her motivation to “represent something much greater,” emphasizing her place in a long and ongoing lineage of Black players.54 Rankine's analysis centered blackness in a way that many other commentators were continuing to elide.

Over the four solid pages of Google results for “Serena Williams GOAT,” articles ranging in years from 2015 to 2017, on websites including Forbes, Complex, Fader, New York Times, Bleacher Report, ESPN, ABC News, and others, identify Williams as the greatest (tennis player) of all time, or GOAT. In 2015, Chris Evert, who had helped to keep Williams out of serious consideration for the great players club with various comments and her 2006 open letter, finally gave her approval in a Time interview: “She is the greatest of all-time.”55 Also in 2015, Williams was again featured on the cover of Vogue, for the first time photographed alone. The accompanying article described her as in the “golden age of her career,” a phase where her “fitness, court intelligence, and legendary focus”—all areas in which she was critiqued earlier in her career—have come together and created a new confidence through which she “has mellowed.” The Vogue article also addresses her return to Indian Wells, highlighting her willingness after years of holding on to a “wound [that] refused to heal” to “move on” through forgiveness.56 This type of commentary would become increasingly commonplace in the GOAT era.

The Vogue feature also emphasized her feminized traits, but now that the media was registering a mellowed, more mature version of Williams, there was less reliance on explicit description of her femininity; instead, identifying Caroline Wozniacki as her best friend accomplished some of the explicating legwork done in earlier articles where Williams was portrayed as more guarded. The identification with Wozniacki, who physically represents the preferred femininity with her blonde hair and tall, thin, lean figure, served to keep Serena in line, as demonstrated by the author's reference to Wozniacki's “role to elbow Serena in the ribs whenever she says anything too far out.” The article includes Chris Evert commenting on the friendship with approval, saying that “in the past, the Williams sisters always stuck together, so it's nice to see that friendship develop between [Wozniacki and Serena].”57 Williams's proximity to the preferred femininity through a stronger friendship with Wozniacki than with her sister, combined with her return to Indian Wells, built on the media's construction of a new, more docile phase in her life and career.

Williams was rewarded for her perceived increased docility once more in 2015, when she was finally recognized as Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated. She played a Grand Slam tournament with the flu that year and fought several other ailments. Her perseverance through those challenges, combined with her return to Indian Wells and the accomplishment of her second Serena Slam, earned her the recognition. Perseverance is aligned with discipline, and this alignment spoke to a new era in which Williams was performing something closer to the hegemonic ideal of a professional athlete. Earlier in her career she had also experienced physical setbacks, but then had received little sympathy or recognition of her returns to sport.

For many, Williams's Open Era record-breaking Grand Slam win in January 2017 at the Australian Open cemented her position as the greatest of all time.58 And once it was revealed that she won while pregnant, even more laudatory comments about her fortitude flooded the media. Discussions of her strength in this context, however, were tied to her newest role: mother-to-be. Media discussion of her win centered on her superhuman ability to beat the odds and dominate regardless of circumstantial challenges, but with the controlling narrative shifting back to her new relationship with her husband and their baby. This is concisely demonstrated by an article in the New York Times featuring a quote expressing the aspiration that whatever happens to Williams's career moving forward, “hopefully it's happily ever after,” a fairy-tale phrase often applied to marriage and domestic life.59 This inclusion firmly places her career in the broader context of those thoroughly feminized spaces.

Williams's August 2017 profile in Vogue focused on her pregnancy, her relationship with Alexis Ohanian, their domestic lives, and her career, in that order.60 It also spent some time discussing race and gender through inclusion of Williams's quotes engaging these; however, the focus always returned to her new wifely and maternal roles. There is glancing reference to the importance of family, but it is situated within the broader context of her relationship with Ohanian—closeness with family is something the pair bonded over during their relationship. In structuring the discussion of family this way, the author positioned the Williams family as separate from Serena, in keeping with media trends at this time: Williams is now defined first and foremost by her prioritization of her new nuclear family. Her third appearance on the magazine's cover in February 2018 featured her daughter Olympia (fig. 4).61

FIGURE 4.

Serena Williams with daughter Olympia in a February 2018 Vogue feature. Robert Haskell, “Love All,” Vogue, February 2018, 108–9. Image courtesy Vogue / Mario Testino.

FIGURE 4.

Serena Williams with daughter Olympia in a February 2018 Vogue feature. Robert Haskell, “Love All,” Vogue, February 2018, 108–9. Image courtesy Vogue / Mario Testino.

While the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year article acknowledged race-related aspects of Williams's return to Indian Wells, it quickly identified the need to “be careful,” because “all this talk about race makes it easy to place Williams in an ever-narrowing box, which is never smart.”62 The acknowledgment of race but decision to avoid spending much time discussing its role in Williams's career was echoed in the 2017 Vogue feature. This approach also neglected to engage with her general movement toward being increasingly vocal about race and racism.63 In this most recent phase of her career, Williams's status as outsider who fought her way into the hegemonic ideal-dominated space of tennis has been narrativized as part of her underdog mythology. The articles from this era compliment Williams on her newfound sense of focus, calm, and poise, and instead of comparing her with Venus as earlier in her career, they compare her with younger versions of herself. As Williams allowed her relationship and pregnancy to become public knowledge, they became the controlling narrative of her story.

More recently, following her loss in the 2018 US Open Women's Final, Williams was portrayed as an overly emotional, immature, irrational, excessively muscular figure (racist features popularized during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including exaggeratedly thick lips, often utilized to dehumanize Black people) in a cartoon published in a popular Australian newspaper, Melbourne's Herald Sun. 64 The cartoon included a depiction of her opponent and the referee engaging with one another in a calm manner. Even more telling: her Haitian Japanese opponent, Naomi Osaka, was whitewashed into a slender, blonde, white foil to Williams. Her portrayed whiteness, thinness, and proximity to the preferred femininity served as shorthand for rationality, appropriateness, and docility. This moment, a year removed from the birth of Williams's daughter and correspondingly removed from pregnancy, represented a rupture in her movement toward acceptance by the professional tennis world. But this event was not like those earlier in her career—in the days, weeks, and months that followed, observers criticized the cartoon and asked for acknowledgment from the newspaper that the drawing was racist. This time, members of the tennis establishment were more likely to come to her defense and complicate overly simple interpretations of Williams's frustrations on the court.65 Although there were a range of responses—Martina Navratilova, recognized by Tennis magazine as one of the best female tennis players of all time, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for Williams to exhibit more “respect for the sport”—the fact that other prominent figures like Chris Evert and Billie Jean King did not critique her suggested a meaningful shift in how members of the tennis establishment regarded her.66

In general, recent coverage of Williams has not relied as much on characterizing her as superhuman; indeed, she appears to have been humanized through the process of becoming a mother. In his coverage of the 2019 US Open, Clarey of the New York Times used language evoking Williams's physicality, but with a subtle shift: he referenced her “ripp[ing] winners on the run against an overwhelmed younger opponent,” but also focused on her recent “[in]ability to close” and tied it to the recent birth of her daughter. The quote following his reference to her new maternal status, pulled from a post-match interview with Williams, emphasized her emotions: “‘There's so many different emotions in finals,’ Williams said softly on Thursday night. ‘It just brings out so many highs and lows, nerves and expectations—it's just a lot.’” Clarey continued by asserting that her statement had never been more substantiated than since the birth of her daughter.67 This and his related coverage highlighted her new status as mother as being part of a shift in her gameplay and ability to close—by highlighting “softly” articulated emotions from Williams about the game, Clarey subjected her to scrutiny that is typically reserved for women embodying the preferred femininity.

CONCLUSION

Despite the protestations of some, sport is an excellent space to discuss political, social, and cultural dynamics in contemporary culture. As asserted concisely by Samantha N. Sheppard, it is a space where “meanings and assumption about race alongside gender, sexuality, class, ability, and national identity and belonging compete for prominence on and off the field and in the collective imaginary.”68 At the 2002 US Open, for example, Williams took center court wearing a custom-designed, all-black, form-fitting Lycra-spandex ensemble, dubbed her “catsuit.” Media quickly conflated discussions of sexuality, muscularity, and masculinity through scrutiny of Williams's body. As argued by Jaime Schultz in “Reading the Catsuit” (2005), the ensuing discussion “reproduce[d] the traditional racialized order in women's tennis.” Reactions like this and the Herald Sun cartoon, which are racially coded to highlight blackness as intrusive difference, are muted due to the dominating “ideologies of color blindness,” which “presume equity and fairness by denouncing the significance of ‘race’[;] individuals are blamed for their own misfortunes, thereby disregarding historical and systematic processes of discrimination.” Schultz also acknowledges, however, that sport is “best understood as a ‘contested terrain’ where racialized ideologies and relations are constantly negotiated, resisted, and transformed.”69 In this component of her article, she acknowledges that some applauded Williams for boldness. Similarly, while some critiqued Williams for her response to the referee's calls in the 2018 US Open Women's Final, others voiced support. In this manner, sport serves as a space for debate about societal, cultural, and political issues. And over the course of her career, Serena Williams has been at the center of many such debates.

Williams has been scrutinized extensively for the way she uses her body to play her sport, the way she dresses her body both on and off court, the way she spends her time on and off court, the way she behaves in victory, the way she behaves in defeat, and, tellingly, the way she behaves when speaking to the media and members of the tennis community. She is routinely otherized through assertions that she is not composed, consistent, or strategic enough, not dressed appropriately, not friendly enough, not humble enough. The process of constructing Williams as other, undertaken by the gatekeepers of the tennis world, serves as a form of surveillance laden with implicit directives: if she would only change herself to fit the mold of a great white female tennis player, the critiquing chorus would quiet down and let her build her legacy in peace.

Although her physicality, strength, and boldness preclude her from reproducing an image of the preferred femininity on the tennis court, her adoption of characteristics of docility, including her forgiveness of the (predominantly white) crowd at the Indian Wells tournament in 2001, alignment with her (white) husband, and adoption of the ultimate feminized role of mother, have opened the gates for her entry into the hall of tennis greats. Commentators, ex-professional tennis greats, and sports journalists have shifted their focus from the unapologetically proud, assertive, and strong way Williams publicly presents herself to the ways in which she has improved by their standards. By balancing how she would like to be understood with characteristics typically ascribed to the preferred femininity, she asserts agency and negotiates in politics of respectability.

She is also increasingly the focus of pieces in mainstream and women's magazines, especially related to coverage of her pregnancy, engagement, and wedding (for instance in New York Magazine, Glamour, People, Us Weekly, and Vanity Fair), suggesting that gatekeepers of preferred femininity are altering their stance as well.70 This change has implications beyond the tennis court, as Williams is now being offered access to more endorsement deals than ever before: in 2016, for the first time since 2005, she unseated Maria Sharapova as the highest paid female athlete.71 In November 2017, following the birth of her daughter, Williams starred in a national Gatorade commercial in which she is depicted softly talking to her newborn daughter about her hopes for her, through the lens of sport and perseverance—her motherhood is emphasized (and commodified) in this space where masculinized toughness and strength are usually dominant themes. In February 2019, she served as narrator and subject in Nike's “Dream Crazier” series of ads, which showcases female athletes pushing boundaries of their respective sports and being critiqued and dismissed for it. Williams observes in voice-over that “winning twenty-three Grand Slams, having a baby, and then coming back for more [has been called] crazy.”72 Her motherhood, critiques leveled against her, and her legacy are emphasized and commodified once more.

This article has explored the extent to which media constructions of Serena Williams have changed over the course of her career, as well as what factors effected this change, focusing specifically on her status as racialized other in a historically white, affluent, male space. Results suggest that gatekeepers comprised of sports commentators, members of the professional tennis community, and sports journalists consistently emphasized ways in which Williams did not belong. The results also suggest that when successful Black women do not engage in some performance of respectability by ascribing to the preferred modes of societal operation in achieving their success, they are met with disparagement, disdain, and vitriol, despite the overarching neoliberal meritocracy-based narrative that exists in contemporary US culture. When Williams began publicly performing traditionally feminized actions and roles, including forgiveness, excitement about marriage, and motherhood, the tennis gatekeepers began to accept her.

This research also considers the role of the media in constructing perceptions of and narratives about public figures, and in some cases, reinforcing super-narratives about Black people while ignoring or eliding their super-narrative framework. Future research could explore in more detail moments of radical noncompliance with superstructures handed down from gatekeeping entities. Additional research could further engage the role of the media in simultaneously presenting and invalidating descriptions of prejudice or societal shortcomings.

NOTES

1.

Lee Adjepong and Ben Carrington, “Black Female Athletes as Space Invaders,” in Routledge Handbook of Sport, Gender and Sexuality, ed. Jennifer Hargreaves and Eric Anderson (New York: Routledge, 2014), 169.

2.

Toni Bruce, “New Rules for New Times: Sportswomen and Media Representation in the Third Wave,” Sex Roles 74 (2015): 363.

3.

Raewyn W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 183–84.

4.

Patricia Hill Collins, “No Guarantees: Symposium on Black Feminist Thought,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 13 (2015): 2349.

5.

Elena Bergeron, “How Serena Williams Became the G.O.A.T.,” The Fader, October 4, 2016, http://www.thefader.com/2016/10/04/serena-williams-interview-cover-story.

6.

As described by Paisley Jane Harris, “Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism,” Journal of Women's History 15, no. 1 (2003): 213.

7.

This approach follows the one modeled in Michael K. Park, “Race, Hegemonic Masculinity, and the ‘Linpossible!’: An Analysis of Media Representations of Jeremy Lin,” Communication and Sport 3, no. 4 (2015): 367–89.

8.

Hye Jin Paek and Hemant Shah, “Racial Ideology, Model Minorities, and the ‘Not-So-Silent Partner’: Stereotyping of Asian Americans in U.S. Magazine Advertising,” Howard Journal of Communication 14, no. 4 (2003): 231.

9.

Clare Raymond, “Female Hulk with a Bum to Match,” The Mirror (London), July 18, 2003, page unknown; Robin Finn, “A Family Tradition at Age 14,” New York Times, October 31, 1995, B13.

10.

Ayanna Dozier, “Racial Uplift, Black Women, and the Pursuits of Love and Travel in Torchy in Heartbeats by Jackie Ormes,” Feminist Media Histories 4, no. 3 (2018): 13.

11.

Britney C. Cooper, “Refereeing Serena: Racism, Anger and U.S. (Women's) Tennis,” Crunk Feminist Collective, September 12, 2011, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2011/09/12/refereeing-serena-racism-anger-and-u-s-womens-tennis/. The Collins reference is to “No Guarantees,” 2349.

12.

Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women's Sport, 2nd ed. (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 112, 118.

13.

Bruce, “New Rules for New Times,” 365–66.

14.

On docility see Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon, 1977), 135–69.

15.

Cheryl L. Cole, “Resisting the Canon: Feminist Cultural Studies, Sport, and Technologies of the Body,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 17, no. 2 (1993): 86.

16.

Nicole Pietsch, “‘I'm Not That Kind of Girl’: White Femininity, the Other, and the Legal/Social Sanctioning of Sexual Violence against Racialized Women,” Canadian Woman Studies 28, no. 1 (2009): 138.

17.

See for instance Megan McArdle, “Serena Williams Is Not the Best Tennis Player,” Bloomberg, June 29, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-06-29/serena-williams-is-not-the-best-tennis-player. Also, for context, The Grand Slam tournaments are the highest ranking national championships in professional tennis, recognized by the Association of Tennis Professionals (professional men's league), the Women's Tennis Association (founded in 1973 by Billie Jean King), and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the governing body of professional tennis. For additional historical details see ATP Tour, “History,” https://www.atptour.com/en/corporate/history. The Open Era in professional tennis was established in 1968 when Grand Slam tournaments, which were previously for amateur players only, allowed tennis pros to play.

18.

Delia D. Douglas, “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A Commentary on Surveillance, Race Talk, and New Racism(s),” Journal of Black Studies 43, no. 2 (2011): 128. The “politics of containment” phrase is from Patricia Hill Collins, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1998), 35.

19.

Douglas, “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness,” 128. Here, Douglas engages Herman Gray's Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press).

20.

Anne Helen Petersen, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), 19.

21.

Petersen, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, 19.

22.

Petersen, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, 19, referencing Douglas Robson, “Serena Shows Renewed Resolve,” USA Today, June 1, 2004, page unknown.

23.

Selena Roberts, “U.S. OPEN; Serena Williams Wins Match, Then Takes a Shot at Hingis,” New York Times, September 3, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/03/sports/u-s-open-serena-williams-wins-match-then-takes-a-shot-at-hingis.html.

24.

S. L. Price, “Father Knew Best,” Sports Illustrated, September 20, 1999, https://www.si.com/vault/1999/09/20/8110667/father-knew-best-with-her-galvanizing-win-at-the-us-open-serena-williams-proved-dad-righthe-predicted-that-she-not-older-sister-venus-would-be-the-better-playerbut-may-have-created-family-tension. On Compton stereotypes see for instance Dennis Hunt, “The Rap Reality: Truth and Money: Compton's N.W.A. Catches Fire with Stark Portraits of Ghetto Life,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1989, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-04-02-ca-1603-story.html.

25.

Douglas, “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness,” 130.

26.

Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (New York: Bloomberg, 2004).

27.

Adjepong and Carrington, “Black Female Athletes as Space Invaders,” 172, which engages Puwar's notion of space invaders.

29.

Adjepong and Carrington, “Black Female Athletes as Space Invaders,” 170.

30.

The Women's Tennis Association was founded in 1973 by professional tennis player Billie Jean King “on the principle of equal opportunity for women in sports.” It is globally recognized as the highest-ranking women's professional tennis organization. “About the WTA,” https://www.wtatennis.com/about.

31.

Julia Reed, “Sisters at Court,” Vogue, May 1998, 138.

32.

David L. Andrews, Ron L. Mower, and Michael L. Silk, “Ghettocentrism and the Essentialized Black Male Athlete,” in Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports, ed. David J. Leonard and C. Richard King (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), 70.

33.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Little, 2006), 3.

34.

Reed, “Sisters at Court,” 272.

35.

Joel Drucker, “What Happened at Indian Wells?” ESPN.com, March 11, 2009, https://www.espn.com/sports/tennis/columns/story?columnist=drucker_joel&id=3952939.

36.

Selena Roberts, “Serena Williams Wins as the Boos Pour Down,” New York Times, March 18, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/18/sports/tennis-serena-williams-wins-as-the-boos-pour-down.html.

37.

Tom Coffey, “TENNIS; Surgery Will Keep Serena Williams Out of U.S. Open,” New York Times, August 2, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/02/sports/tennis-surgery-will-keep-serena-williams-out-of-us-open.html.

38.

Christopher Clarey, “Tennis: A Slam to Call Her Own,” New York Times, January 25, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/25/sports/tennis-a-slam-to-call-her-own.html.

39.

George Vecsey, “Sport of the Times; Theories about Paris from Williams' Mother,” New York Times, June 26, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/26/sports/sports-of-the-times-theories-about-paris-from-serena-s-mother.html.

41.

Wertheim, “The Serena Show.”

42.

Lisa DePaulo, “Trophy Girl,” Vogue, April 2003, 334–400.

43.

The text of Chris Evert's 2006 open letter is available at a few different websites; search for the opening line: “I've been thinking about your career, and something is troubling me.”

44.

Christopher Clarey, “Dominant in Her Era, Serena Still Has Time to Build on Legacy,” New York Times, September 10, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/sports/tennis/dominant-serena-williams-still-has-time-to-build-on-legacy.html.

45.

Christopher Clarey, “Often a Champion, but Rarely a No. 1,” New York Times, October 21, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/sports/tennis/22iht-srwtserena22.html.

46.

L. Jon Wertheim, “Serena Supreme,” Sports Illustrated, July 12, 2010, https://vault.si.com/vault/2010/07/12/serena-supreme.

47.

Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality,” Human Studies 3, no. 2 (1980): 142.

48.

“National Treasures,” Vogue, June 2012, C1.

49.

L. Jon Wertheim quoted in Dave Zirin, “Serena Williams, Indian Wells, and Rewriting the Future,” The Nation, February 6, 2015, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/serena-williams-indian-wells-and-rewriting-future/.

50.

See for instance Bill Dwyre, “Serena Williams Will End 14-year Boycott and Return to Indian Wells,” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-serena-williams-20150205-column.html.

51.

Karen Crouse, “Serena Williams Gets a Win and an Ovation in Her Return to Indian Wells,” New York Times, March 14, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/14/sports/tennis/serena-williams-gets-a-win-and-an-ovation-in-her-return-to-indian-wells.html.

52.

On her stated intentions see Serena Williams, “Serena Williams: I'm Going Back to Indian Wells,” Time, February 4, 2015, https://time.com/3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/.

53.

Jon Wertheim, “Serena Shows Resilience in Virtuous Return to Indian Wells after 14 Years,” Sports Illustrated, March 13, 2015, https://www.si.com/tennis/2015/03/13/serena-williams-resilient-return-indian-wells-boycott.

54.

Claudia Rankine, “The Meaning of Serena Williams,” August 25, 2015, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-meaning-of-serena-williams.html.

55.

Sean Gregory, “Chris Evert: Serena Williams Is the Greatest of All Time,” Time, June 18, 2015, https://time.com/3927055/serena-williams-chris-evert-wimbledon/.

56.

Rebecca Johnson, “Why Serena Williams Is Best Friends with Her Fiercest Competitor,” Vogue, March 21, 2015, https://www.vogue.com/article/serena-williams-april-cover-caroline-wozniacki.

57.

Johnson, “Why Serena Williams Is Best Friends with Her Fiercest Competitor.”

58.

Record-breaking because it marked the moment when Williams surpassed Steffi Graff to become the professional female tennis player with the second-most total Grand Slam singles wins of all time.

59.

Christopher Clarey, Serena Williams Confirms She's Pregnant after Day of Speculation,” New York Times, April 19, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/sports/tennis/serena-williams-pregnant-snapchat.html

60.

Rob Haskell, “Serena Williams on Pregnancy, Power, and Coming Back to Center Court,” Vogue, August 15, 2017, https://www.vogue.com/article/serena-williams-pregnancy-vogue-september-issue-2017.

61.

The accompanying story was Robert Haskell, “Love All,” Vogue, February 2018, 108–9, https://archive.vogue.com/article/2018/02/01/love-all.

62.

S. L. Price, “Serena Williams,” Sports Illustrated, December 21, 2015, retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/2015/12/21/serena-williams.

63.

For example in Christine Hauser, “‘I Won't Be Silent’: Serena Williams on the Fear of Driving While Black,” New York Times, September 28, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/29/sports/tennis/serena-williams-addresses-fears-of-driving-while-black.html.

64.

See the cartoon and defense of its publication in “Herald Sun Backs Mark Knight's Cartoon on Serena Williams,” Herald Sun (Melbourne), September 12, 2018, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/herald-sun-backs-mark-knights-cartoon-on-serena-williams/news-story/30c877e3937a510d64609d89ac521d9f.

65.

For instance TMZ Sports, “Chris Evert Says Serena Williams Got ‘Raw Deal’ of Coaching Violation at U.S. Open,” September 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RujRtlfqb0g.

66.

Martina Navratilova, “Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong,” New York Times, September 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/10/opinion/martina-navratilova-serena-williams-us-open.html.

67.

Christopher Clarey, “Serena Williams Roars Back into the U.S. Open Final,” New York Times, September 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/sports/tennis/us-open-serena-williams-match.html.

68.

Samantha N. Sheppard, “Close-Up: Mediated Contests: Sports, Race, and the Power of Narrative,” Black Camera 10, no. 1 (2019): 158.

69.

Jaime Schultz, “Reading the Catsuit: Serena Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 U.S. Open,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 29, no. 3 (2005): 351.

70.

A small selection includes Kerry Howell, “The Unretiring Serena Williams,” New York Magazine, August 9, 2015, https://www.thecut.com/2015/08/serena-williams-still-has-tennis-history-to-make.html; Melissa Harris Perry, “Serena Williams Is Unstoppable: ‘Am I the Greatest? I Don't Know. I'm the Greatest That I Can Be,’” Glamour, June 7, 2016, https://www.glamour.com/story/serena-williams-the-worlds-greatest-athlete; Jason Duaine Hahn and Kathy Ehrich Dowd, “A Perfect Match! Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian Are Married,” People, November 16, 2017, https://people.com/sports/serena-williams-alexis-ohanian-wedding-marriage/; Emily Marcus, “Serena Williams Teaches Her Newborn Daughter Alexis the Value in Sports,” Us Weekly, November 20, 2017, https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/serena-williams-teaches-daughter-alexis-the-value-in-sports/; Buzz Bissinger, “Serena Williams' Love Match,” Vanity Fair, June 27, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/06/serena-williams-cover-story.

71.

Kristen Bahler, “There's Only One Woman on Forbes' New List of the 100 Highest-Paid Athletes,” Time, June 8, 2017, https://money.com/female-highest-paid-athletes/.

72.

Watch the “Dream Crazier” ad featuring Williams at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Mc06cIrvXE.