I couldn’t look at some of the most groundbreaking female tennis players without including Queen Serena. Without a doubt Serena is my favourite tennis player, an opinion I think I share with most of my generation. Not only is she one of the most successful tennis players of all time, but she has proved to my generation and younger generations that you can be powerful, fierce and successful in sport whilst also being female.
Serena Williams (b. 1981)
She has won 39 Grand Slam titles (in singles, doubles and mixed doubles) which is the record for Grand Slam titles amongst active players. Having won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she currently holds the title for most Grand Slams won in the open era and is only 1 Grand Slam win away from the all time record of 24 (which is held by Margaret Court). Most impressively her most recent win at the Australian Open was whilst Serena was 8 weeks pregnant!
Serena has used her popularity and the attention of the world’s media to fund and highlight her charity – the Serena Williams Foundation. Through this foundation she has helped to build schools in Kenya and Jamaica as well as provide University scholarships for underprivileged students in America. She regularly supports and visits community centres/schools to talk to children at risk and help to inspire them as well as give them the skills to enable them to succeed.
Despite being one of the most successful tennis players of all time and still performing at the top of her game, she has constantly had to battle racism and sexism throughout her career. Serena is often overshadowed by her male tennis peers and there has been a rhetoric within the media to focus on her appearance and style instead of her achievements on the court. This focus on Serena’s body shape/fashion and make-up choices is used by journalists to undermine her athletic abilities and successes – something that Federer or Murray has never had to face. Despite this blatant sexism Serena has proved her critics wrong by continuing to dominate the court whilst also embracing her love for fashion (she has designed and released her own clothing line). She refuses to be boxed into one stereotype of a female tennis player.
The most successful black player in tennis history, Serena has spoken out about facing racism from the start of her career. She has pledged her support to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as speaking publicly about the lack of representation within the tennis industry, both on the court and the lack of opportunities for young black players. Although there are now no major tennis tournaments discriminating against players due to their ethnicity or race, Serena has faced racially motivated discrimination from the media as well as from some racist spectators. Some media outlets have depicted her as ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’ and have questioned whether her matches have been fixed. This continued use of the ‘angry black women’ stereotype and accusations of foul play are to try and demean her achievements on the court.
It has also been discovered that Serena has been drug tested for banned performance enhancing drugs at a higher rate than her white female peers, despite never having been found to have had any performance enhancing drugs in her system. Although the accusations that this increased drug testing is racially motivated has been disputed by the Tennis Federation that organises the drug testing, this is part of a wider system that is prejudice against black players and serves to further enhance the already privileged opportunities for white players. However Serena has never let this stop her and is the most successful female player still currently playing.
On a personal note, I would like to include my former teacher Dee O’Reilly within this series on groundbreaking women in tennis. For the last 25 years Miss O’Reilly has trained students at the all-female St Philomena’s High School in South London to become ballgirls for the Queens Club Aegon tournament. Every year she trains girls aged 12-15 to perform as ballgirls to an Aegon Championship level – however this training scheme is much more than that. Not only did I have the opportunity to get a week off school to ball girl for top players, but the 9 month training course taught me a new skill, to be committed and that there is always a place for girls to excel at sports. In a sport that has previously been dominated by ball boys, to have trained a all-female ball girl squad for 25 years is a huge achievement! Miss O’Reilly has already been invited back to Queens next year with a new squad of ballgirls.