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Why Serena Williams’ mark on tennis goes far beyond her wins

August 9, 2022, 8:55 PM UTC

Tennis great Serena Willams is leaving the game that made her famous.

“I’ve never liked the word retirement,” she wrote in an as-told-to essay published today in Vogue. “I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”

It’s been quite a run for Williams since she turned pro at age 14.

Here’s just one slice of her extraordinary record: In addition to being one of the highest-paid female athletes of all time, Williams has earned 39 total Grand Slam titles—23 in singles, 14 in women’s doubles, and two for mixed doubles wins, 10 of which she won after she turned 30. 

But from an early age, long before she was truly established, she was willing to turn the attention she garnered into an opportunity to raise powerful questions about equity, equal pay, race, and justice. She wasn’t just young, she faced the kinds of headwinds that nobody should face, but plenty of people do. Things like racist taunts, microaggressions, over-policing—she was tested for performance-enhancing drugs twice as frequently as other female players—all while being held to double standards that don’t apply to men.

Her fierce grace made her a beacon for Black and brown talent in any field.

In a conversation about race and activism with the artist Common in 2016, she said she often felt the weight of the expectations of others—good and bad, on the court. “It’s hard as a Black woman and being someone who’s Black in America, representing this country when I’m playing and when I’m doing things,” she said.

Now, her advocacy is a fully developed superpower.

Williams went public with the harrowing, near-death experience she had giving birth to her daughter in 2017. One in three Black women die in or after childbirth, and Williams was nearly one of them. “Giving birth to my baby, it turned out, was a test for how loud and how often I would have to call out before I was finally heard,” she wrote about her need to advocate for herself.

She turned that experience into a call to action for the health care system to do better for women of color. Williams then became a busy venture investor and used the opportunity to change another game.

Serena Ventures, launched in 2014, joined investor Mark Cuban and others in a funding round for Mahmee, a startup focused on ending the maternal mortality crisis impacting Black women. “I am incredibly excited to invest and partner with Mahmee, a company that personifies my firm’s investment philosophy,” Williams said. “Given the bleak data surrounding maternal death and injury rates, I believe that it is absolutely critical right now to invest in solutions that help protect the lives of moms and babies.”

According to Williams, her evolution will involve expanding her work both as a venture investor and as a parent. Olympia, the daughter she shares with her husband Alexis Ohanian, wants a little sister. In her candid style, Williams described the tradeoff she’s facing. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family,” she wrote. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”

Fans would say that being a Serena Williams is a pretty big deal, but point taken. And that could be exactly what makes her so extraordinary. Given the world she was born into, it may turn out that her enduring willingness to use her voice for justice will be her GOATiest move of all.

While we don’t know exactly what’s next for her, I expect fierceness to follow.

After her loss at the 2019 Wimbledon final, reporters asked her to respond to a comment from tennis legend Billie Jean King, who said that Williams should “stop being a celebrity for a year and stop fighting for equality, and just focus on the tennis.” Williams answered swiftly. “The day I stop fighting for equality…will be the day I’m in my grave.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point: Legislation

What’s in the Inflation Reduction Act? The Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday, an ambitious piece of legislation that includes $369 billion for U.S. energy security and climate change, the largest-ever federal investment in clean energy in history.

Experts say the bill isn’t perfect, but it’s very good news. “This is the most significant action the U.S. has ever taken to combat climate change. It will benefit the people of all 50 states—their health, their wallets, their homes and their future,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement.

The investment comes none too soon: Underserved immigrants and communities of color are among the populations who are least able to handle what’s coming next. “The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in the introduction to a 2021 report.

Also in the bill are health care reforms, including expansion of the low-income subsidy program, a cap of $2,000 on out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for people on Medicare starting in 2025, and a provision that will allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain drugs starting in 2026. Good, but not good enough, says the Alliance for Aging Research. The “negotiation” language is really a price-setting scheme and may exclude vulnerable populations. “As currently drafted, this legislation permits use of methodologies that discriminate against older adults and people with disabilities that could severely limit patient access to current and future breakthrough treatments,” they said in a statement.

The news for diabetes patients was mixed.

A provision to cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month regardless of insurance was ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian. The cap will be instituted within Medicare but not on private insurance. According to the HHS, Black adults are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, and twice as likely to die than non-Hispanic white adults. Hispanic adults are 70% more likely to be diagnosed than non-Hispanic whites, and 1.3 times more likely to die from the disease.


Parting words

“Obviously, everything I’ve done is because of the help of my sister Venus. But when I started out, I never thought, ‘I want to open up doors for Black athletes,’ and then to female athletes. I ended up on this path and people started looking up to me and it was different, because I was like, ‘I’m just doing me.’ And people were starting to appreciate it; I was, like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s kind of cool.’ I never think of it as a weight. I believe that God never gives you more than what you can handle, and for me, I’m not carrying it alone. I embrace it.”

— Serena Williams

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