Is Serena Williams the new Muhammad Ali?

July 15, 2016

With Serena Williams' record-tying Grand Slam victory July 9, her claim to the best athlete of her generation — male or female — seems irrefutable.

But with the celebrity tennis player's Compton-to-Wimbledon narrative, and emergence as an outspoken and defiant champion of the African American community in the US, is the superstar athlete the most iconic since the late Muhammad Ali?

Combining her athletic acumen with a political activism that often finds its voice on social media, Williams tweeted on July 7 after Black man Philando Castile was murdered by Minnesota cops during a traffic stop: “He was black. Shot 4 times? When will something be done- no REALY be done?!?!”

In an earlier interview this year, Williams told reporter Ben Rothenberg: “I do have nephews that I'm thinking, do I have to call them and tell them, 'Don't go outside. If you get in your car, it might be the last time I see you'.”

This kind of fearlessness, an almost redemptive rise from the streets of south central Los Angeles, and a megawatt charisma that has buoyed her in staring down jealous competitors, a hostile professional tennis bureaucracy and savage and stereotypically racist characterisations in the media about her “masculine” body and style, has earned Williams 6.3 million followers on Twitter, a celebrity cult-following and the ferocious admiration of fans, particularly women of colour.

“Real Black Girlhood isn't about complexion or where you were raised,” the African American writer Jamilah Lemieux wrote in a 2015 Ebony Magazine article titled, “Why Black Women Love Miss Williams”.

“It's about how you show up and represent, and Serena is definitely one of ours.”

In August last year, Williams expressed outrage after Christian Taylor, a football player at Angelo State University in Texas, was shot and killed by police after responding to a burglary at a car dealership. Taylor was unarmed.

Not long after, she voiced her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “So to those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don't let those trolls stop you,” Serena said in an interview with Wired. “We've been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too.”

Williams returned to Indian Wells last year, a tennis tournament in California, where 14 years earlier she was showered with boos and racial slurs in the final. She used the publicity to raise funds for the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organisation that provides legal representation to prisoners who have been denied adequate legal representation.

This kind of activism has led many of Williams' admirers to respond in kind, supporting Williams in her challenges both on, and off, the tennis court.

And no less an authority than the tennis great John McEnroe described Williams as the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

And her athletic grace and gestures of solidarity with the poor, the working class, and people of colour, were of course, hallmarks of Muhammad Ali, who passed away in June at the age of 72.

Said another Facebook admirer: “I love the way LeBron spoke up about Trayvon Martin, and I loved Allen Iverson for all that he overcame to get where he got.

“But if you are Black in America today, no one makes you prouder to be Black than Serena Williams. She really is like Muhammad Ali was to my Dad's generation.”

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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