Dave Zirin: Why Serena Williams is today's Muhammad Ali

July 17, 2015

Serena Williams has won 21 Grand Slam titles — the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined.

There are many articles — terrific articles — defending Serena Williams against the racism and sexism that have long stalked her career. But we should be similarly aggressive in stating factually just who Serena is becoming before our very eyes.

If we stay in a defensive stance, we could be missing a transcendent chapter in sports and social history starting to coalesce. Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam title. That is the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined.

In her last 28 matches she is 28-0, and at the US Open this August, Williams will be favoured to win the sport’s first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago.

At 33, Williams actually seems to be gaining strength. As John McEnroe said, among women, “she could arguably be the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.”

I think this even understates her case. Serena is that rare athlete who has not only mastered her sport. She’s harnessed it.

If we take a break from defending her, which her detractors do not make easy, it becomes increasingly clear that she is also perhaps our Muhammad Ali.

That’s sacrilege in some circles, and understandably so. Ali risked years in federal prison to stand up to an unjust war, becoming the most famous draft resister in history.

His very presence at different points inspired the first Pan-Africanist stirrings of Malcolm X, the anti-war evocations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the very mental survival of a prisoner half-way around the world named Nelson Mandela.

There is and never will be anyone like Ali, without question. But this is also not the 1960s - and there will also never be anyone like Serena.

I want to break down what, in my view, makes Ali “Ali”. To be in Ali’s tradition of athletes, there are three basic boxes one would need to check: The first is that the sportsperson in question would need to be among the greatest in their field. Williams more than checks that box.

Secondly, one would have to be polarising in a way that speaks to issues beyond the field: thrilling some people politically and enraging others with every triumph.

Lastly, one would have to not just “represent” or symbolise a political yearning but actually stand for something, and risk their commercial appeal by taking such stands.

Williams doesn’t only check these boxes. She has confronted — and overcome — more obstacles than even Ali ever had to face. Her political powers of representation, every time she emerges victorious, is off the metre.

Symbolically, the very audacity of Williams — a black woman from Compton who has owned a country-club sport with style, flair, and the occasional leopard suit, is without comparison. She is “peak Tiger Woods” in skill, but cut with Ali’s transgressive style: the equivalent of the Champ telling the craggy, macho world of boxing that he was “so very pretty”.

But not even Ali had to achieve in an atmosphere as inhospitable as Williams' athletic setting. This is about the very particular intersectional oppression she has faced as a Black woman. This iconic body she proudly inhabits — her shape, her curves, her muscularity — has been the subject of scorn, regardless of the results.

Even at his most denigrated, Ali’s loudest detractors conceded that his physical body was a work of athletic sculpture.

As a Black man, he was objectified with a mix of admiration, longing, and envy, in the ways black male athletes have always been seen since the days of plantation sports. It was his mind and mouth that truly made him threatening.

People wanted Ali to “shut up and box” for years before finally stripping him of his title. But as that phrase implies, they still wanted him to box.

Not Williams. Instead, she has had to face a tennis world that has made it clear in tones polite and vulgar that it would be so nice if she was not there. But she has shut them all up with the same wicked power that defines her game.

Like Martina Navratilova before her, Williams has forced sportswriters and fans to confront what a female athlete’s body can look like, and they have often responded terribly. Overwhelmingly male sports media and many tennis fans mocked and continue to belittle her appearance, but Williams brushes them off — at least publicly — like so much shoulder dust.

The greater her stature, the more pathetic they look. The higher her profile, the lower they seem.

Then there are her explicit politics. This is not the '60s and there is not a mass movement to deify Williams the way there was one to lift Ali, when the world was insistent upon his destruction. But that only makes the stands she has chosen to take all the more remarkable.

In 2000, Serena Williams pulled out of the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina in solidarity with the NAACP’s call to boycott over the flying of the Confederate flag atop the state house. After her Wimbledon victory on July 11, she spoke about the recent “Mother Emmanuel” Church murders in Charleston, calling it a “tragedy yet again,” and an “unspeakably sad” moment that takes its “toll”.

However, she pledged to “continue to have faith, continue to believe, continue to be positive, continue to help people to the best of [my] ability”.

Williams has been a voice for women’s pay equity in the sport, backing her sister Venus’s powerful push for economic gender justice in a sport that at one time paid women with bouquets of flowers.

Most compellingly, as the Black Lives Matter movement has tried to focus the nation on both police violence and the injustices that surround our system of mass incarceration, Williams has chosen to partner with the Equal Justice Initiative. The group fights for prisoners’ rights amid the racism that pervades our criminal-justice system.

In an audacious move, she even tied her return to Indian Wells, a tournament she had boycotted after being showered with racist catcalls in 2001, to the raising of money for the group.

If anything, the greatest difference between Williams and Ali is the absence of that mass social movement to elevate her presence and push the non-believers to see what we have in front of us. Ali went from despised to beloved because a mass black-freedom struggle and anti-war movement took him as their own. He became more than an athlete: He became a social question.

Similarly, a movement fighting for #BlackLivesMatter and gender justice, a movement of struggle that includes the young women of Ferguson, Bree Newsome, and everyone fighting fiercely to reshape this country, has the potential to deliver Williams to even greater heights. Williams is also becoming a social question, because she represents in so many ways the questions that people are facing in their daily lives.

In other words, she poses this very sharp interrogation to the viewer: When you see her serve, her volley, and her physical self; when you hear her words, her concerns, her causes, which side are you on? This remarkable athletic force of nature, or those trying — and failing — to tear her down?

After her Wimbledon victory, Williams was asked which athlete she admired the most. She said that it was Muhammad Ali. Not for his boxing but for “what he stood for” outside the ring.

For years people have asked who would be “the next Muhammad Ali”. If we dare to lift our heads, it will be clear that she is right in front of us. In the years to come, we may need to change the question and ask who will be “the next Serena Williams.”

[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]

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