Serena Williams and her legion of fans will be thrilled the tennis star has been included in TIME Magazine’s 1oo most influential people list. Featured alongside names such as Obama, the Pope and Beyoncé, Serena Williams’ inclusion is much deserved recognition of an athlete who has not only influenced her sport, but has had an impact on athletes outside tennis and anyone in need of an example of how to thrash the odds and succeed.
Serena’s influence on her fellow athletes is testified by Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade in the TIME feature. Wade pays tribute in the issue to Serena’s gifts as an athlete, writing how he looks up to his friend’s hard work and athleticism. Those attributes have helped to change the face of tennis, or, to be exact, the body of its players. While there were great athletes before Williams such as Navratilova and Graf, it was Serena and her sister Venus who cranked up the athleticism on the WTA to new levels.
Gone are the days when the top players on the WTA would cruise through their opening rounds at slams dropping a few games here and there. Nowadays, as Williams can testify having been beaten in the first round of Roland Garros in 2012, the top seeds are tested early on by women just as athletic and powerful as final opponents. Women who have had to work as hard as Serena to stand a chance against her.
One of those women is Sloane Stephens, an athletic and hard-working example of Serena’s legacy to the game of tennis. While African-Americans such as Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison-Jackson, MaliVai Washington, Lori McNeil and Chanda Rubin all achieved great success, none of them achieved anything like the success enjoyed by Serena and her sister Venus. Success that showed African-Americans could not just do well in tennis, but could dominate it. When Sloane Stephens knocked Serena out of the 2013 Australian Open, it was an emotional victory, and a symbolic one as the then 31-year-old Williams watched Stephens proceed on a path she had helped pave.
That path, though made somewhat easier by the African-Americans before her, had been tough for Serena. And even when she was done climbing from the L.A neighborhood of Compton to the top of the predominantly white sport of tennis, the going was still tough, if not tougher. At the prestigious Indian Wells event in 2001, Serena suffered racial abuse at the hands of some of the crowd as she entered the court to contest the final as anger over Venus’ withdrawal in the previous day’s semi-final climaxed. Serena went on to win the final, an impressive illustration of overcoming adversity not just off the court but on it. Williams never returned to the Californian desert, her absence ever since a presence in the tennis headlines.
That win and her subsequent reaction demonstrate adversity is something Serena Williams is anything but afraid of. Her comebacks from injury are famous examples of that, too, and, Wade writes, an influence on him. It is easy to see why-Williams’ comeback from near death due to a pulmonary embolism in 2011 will go down as one of the greatest in any sport.
But it will come second to her Australian Open triumph in 2007. Wade writes how Williams’ refusal to ever give up is the quality he admires most about her, and her 2007 Melbourne run illustrates that perfectly. Ranked 81, criticized for being overweight and cast as the underdog in every match she played, Williams made the final where she thrashed world no. 2, and about to be no. 1, Maria Sharapova, for the loss of 3 games to lift her first Slam trophy since the same event two years earlier. It was not just injury that Williams was getting over in that period, but grief, too. Her sister Yetunde Price had been shot dead in late 2003 and Serena dedicated the trophy to her in a tear-jerking acceptance speech.
Tears have been a feature of Serena’s on-court presence when injuries and opponents have threatened her. When Serena looks like she is going down on court, she is not afraid to shed a few tears on the way to fighting back. Wearing her heart on her sleeve is a quality that has been a hallmark of Serena’s career. And Wade points out that she has as big a heart off the court as she does on it. However, it is her competitive nature fans witness as she fights to the end in every match she plays, leaving everything she has on the court, win or lose, making her an exceptional role model for anyone who needs to gut it out on a tennis court and come back from defeat.
It is not just tears Serena drops on court, though. There are tantrums, too. Serena hit the headlines for her infamous meltdown when a foot-fault was called on her by a line umpire in the 2009 US Open semi-final. That episode got her a point penalty that cost her the match. Serena was savaged in the press for her actions, but she did not shy away. She apologized and moved on, winning the Australian Open a few months later and climbing back to no. 1 in the WTA rankings.
Two years later another tirade at an official, a chair umpire who penalized her for a hindrance call during a point in which Serena shouted before the ball had died, got Serena back on the front pages of the newspapers for all the wrong reasons.
However, in true Williams style, it was not long before she was back in the headlines for the right ones. In 2012, Serena came back from a first-round loss in the French Open to Virginie Razzano to win Wimbledon, the Olympic Gold, the US Open and the WTA Championships, reclaiming her no. 1 ranking along the way. 2013 was even better. Titles at the French Open, the US Open and the WTA Championships were the highlight of an 11 tournament wining season.
Athleticism, getting one up on adversity, a competitive fire on the court and a sweet nature off it, and a refusal to be defeated by opponents, controversy or injuries all make Serena Williams a deserving inclusion in TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people. With 2014 proving to be as great a year as last season, Williams, Wade, and her fans can expect to see Serena featured in the same list next year.
Commentary by Christian Deverille