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Despite racism and constant criticism, Serena Williams is US’s greatest sporting icon


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Serena Williams, Williams, Serena, Serena Australian Open win, racism in America, Serena racism, indian express editorial page, latest news, indian express

February 1, 2017

On Saturday, January 27, there was no maddening rush at the White House to reach Serena Williams, like in 1999, when she won the first of her 23 Grand Slam titles in Flushing Meadows. Or as it was when she won her third Wimbledon, a few months into Barack Obama’s first term. The din of Serena’s feat, now officially the most decorated player in the Open era, died out in the bustle of America’s latest, and loudest, president’s “extreme vetting” immigration diktat.

Yet, the symbolism of Serena’s triumph couldn’t be more relevant. At a time when “America First” rings louder than ever, the greatest of its sporting icons, across genders, is an African-American woman, a Jehovah’s Witness from the wrong side of Los Angeles, where she had lost her eldest sister in a gang shootout, and the daughter of a father who was shooed off a tennis court by affluent whites. Even after she broke into the circuit, Williams has had to confront racism and racist stereotypes — from officials, commentators and even her adversaries.

While it’s overreaching to imagine that her storied success would trigger a revolution in race relations in the US, it’s fair to assume that America’s greatest sporting specimen of the 21st century is an antithesis to its president’s vision for his country. She may not allay the sudden cynicism or the morbid fear of the discriminated and marginalised in the US — sport as a cure to societal dysfunction is grossly hyperbolic — but she stands as an indelible symbol of hope, or an escape. In a metaphorical way, with the mighty swings of her racquet, she’s penning as scathing a verse as Maya Angelou. It won’t seem out of place, if Serena were to recite Angelou’s Still I Rise (in fact, there’s Serena’s rendition of the poem on YouTube).

Concurrently, any interpretation of Serena’s greatness shouldn’t be constricted to her context. These are mere embellishments in her grand narrative. Serena, as a player in isolation, is a worthy premise for weaving enough eulogies. Maybe she is not celebrated as much outside her country because her feats have come to a stage where her winning spree is taken for granted.

Such has been the nature of her hegemony that often the rare opponent who beats her ends up being more glorified, ranging from one-season wonders like Samantha Stosur, to more recent peers like Angelique Kerber. There hasn’t been much of a rivalry to speak of, expect the brief but fiery rancour with Maria Sharapova or the more passionless exchanges with her sister Venus.

Or, as some would say, there were no two equally gifted players playing at the same time. Earlier, it was a case of several similarly endowed players, outstripped by a force superior in craft, more athletic in build, more ruthless in execution of plans. Think of Sharapova, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters, Dinara Safina or Amelie Mauresmo — the draw was far more competitive. And Serena, despite hitting the wrong side of her 30s, isn’t showing signs of fatigue or adieu.

Or as some would nitpick, her game is graceless (sometimes with racist undertones). But there is a brutal beauty to her game — those booming serves and guillotine groundstrokes are a vindication — like in boxing. There’s a powerful symmetry to her movements. Then there is the spontaneous thrill of her athleticism.

To put it simply, there has been no better player than Serena in the 21st century, or arguably ever in the history of tennis. That she happens to be the greatest American sporting icon in the Trump era is a mere coincidence, or perhaps, a bit of satire by the fates.

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