Serena Williams is arguably—though I can’t conjure any reasonable argument—the greatest female tennis player of all time, both fiercely respected and roundly feared on the court. And yet with the start of each tournament, especially the majors, the unrelenting commentary on Serena begins.
At this summer’s Wimbledon, the comments are about her dress. More specifically, the comments are about her breasts. More specifically than that, the comments are about her nipples.
Serena is number 1 in the world, about to turn 35, and playing in the championship match at the most respected professional tournament in the world, going for her 22nd major title. But the mention of her name brings this before all else: you can see her nipples through the white dress and can’t she for god’s sake do something about that, find a way to hide them, cover them up, strap those things down?
I am a fan. Of tennis in general and of Serena in particular. I’ve almost passed out in the searing heat at the U.S. Open. I’ve snagged lucky on-line tickets to Wimbledon. I’ve spent the entire first week at the Australian Open from the opening of the gates until closing. And for the last 2 decades, I’ve watched Serena become a champion as the barrage of criticism, rarely if ever about her tennis, has only gotten louder.
Look at that ass, someone jokes. Those thighs. You’d think she’d try to cover that up, but there she is on the practice court, in leggings. In white leggings! In shorts!
Her face looks odd doesn’t it, her nose is smaller? Come on, she’s had surgery, you can tell. And what’s with the eyebrows, the long painted nails, who can play tennis with nails like that? The big dangling earrings, showing off the diamonds, a belly button ring for god’s sake. Is that permanent eyeliner?
And what the hell is she wearing, can’t she afford a dress that doesn’t fly up?
On the first changeover in every set she plays, Serena Williams does not stroll to her chair. She does not pause for a drink of water. She does not grab one last thing out of her bag or waste time refolding a towel. She does not make her opponent wait. Excepting sister Venus, Serena is the only player who, holding herself accountable to this most basic (though never enforced) rule of the game, walks around the far post and stands ready, always ready, to resume play.
Arms like a linebacker, a friend laughs, maybe she’s part man. Those biceps, those shoulders!
Sore loser. Never gives her opponents the benefit of saying they played well. Surly in post-match press conferences after a defeat, arrogant, nasty, angry, dismissive, egomaniac.
Oh man, has she gained weight? Again?
Compiling this list—the laser-like focus on Serena’s body, her clothes, her jewelry, her makeup, her temperament—I feel exhausted. A familiar pattern emerges. The unrelenting attention we pay to pounds gained. The clothes in our closet that may never again fit. The need to hide, or at least make some grand effort to disguise, the size of our breasts, our asses, our offensive, ungainly thighs. Too much makeup or not enough. The pressure to follow such a long list of fake rules while tamping down our anger, our competitiveness, our desires and aspirations, all to be more lady-like. To be more tolerable to everyone else.
Today, Serena Williams was crowned Wimbledon Champion for the 7th time, tying Steffi Graf’s record of 22 major titles in the Open Era. She held her trophy high overhead, and as she smiled and twirled for the cameras in her white Nike dress I wondered how much of Serena is somewhere, buried, in all of us.
What champions might we become if we stopped worrying so much about the extra pounds and the fake rules and what we need to hide, and simply walked around the post, ready to resume play.