The Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) is a moniker reserved for very few people and yet even that banner seems inadequate when we talk about Serena Williams and her sister Venus. In fact, we cannot even talk about Venus and Serena Williams without recognizing the depth of the impact that the entire Williams family has had on sports and culture on a global scale. Led by their amazing “ever present” mother Oracene Price and their extremely unconventional, barrier breaking, prophetic father and coach Richard Williams, Serena and Venus Williams completely changed the game of tennis, who can play tennis, and who watches it being played. The Williams Sisters’ impact on the sport of tennis is only the beginning of the more than two-decade journey and meteoric rise to fame and professional prowess that both Venus and Serena Williams have had on the American cultural landscape.
The sport of tennis has always been an elite sport, and for the decades before the Williams Sisters came on the scene, a primarily white sport. A sport predominantly played and enjoyed by white people. Although there were a few iconic players such as Althea Gibson who was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title in 1956. Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis when in 1950 she stepped on one of the outer courts at the West Side Tennis Club in Forrest Hills, Queens, the home of the U.S. National Championships. Although Gibson was not the first Black player allowed to compete, technically the USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association) allowed Reginald Weir to play at the 1946 Eastern Indoor Tournament, Gibson was the first Black player allowed to compete against the top players. Trailblazer and Richmond native Arthur Ashe won 3 Grand Slam titles and was the first Black player to be ranked number one in the U.S. Ashe won the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975.
Venus Williams won her first Grand Slam title in 1998 at the Australian Open and Serena the following year by beating Martina Hingis in 1999 at the US Open becoming the first Black women to win a major tennis championship since Althea Gibson in 1958. It took over four decades before the legacy of Althea Gibson could bring another Black woman front and center of the predominantly white and exclusive stage of the tennis world. Venus was only 14 years old when she became a part-time pro tennis player and under the tutelage and unconventional training regime of her father Richard Williams, she upset the tennis world by becoming the first unseeded woman’s finalist since 1958 and the first woman to reach the final of the US Open Final on her first attempt since Pam Shiver 19 years before. Making it to the finals and upper rounds of major tennis tournaments across the globe became the expectation for the Williams Sisters in both singles and doubles play.
In 2021, the motion picture “KING RICHARD” was released. The film captures the racial, economic, and the system-wide barriers that the Williams family battled as they pursued inclusion, recognition, and opportunity within the world of the United States Tennis Association. All the “odds” were against them as they made their climb towards the highest of honors, accolades, and recognitions. They created a fortress of belief and commitment through the impenetrable shield they created as a family that wrapped both Venus and Serena up in love, commitment, dedication, and the belief they had in their dreams. They created a vision of their future success and then made it a reality. The sports world said it couldn’t be done! The way they talked about Venus and Serena Williams on tour and characterized Richard Williams as completely unknowledgeable about tennis, insane, and out of touch with “they way things are supposed to be done.”
The world of tennis didn’t like the way the Williams sisters looked, the ferocity with which they played, how they practiced, and they never missed an opportunity to proclaim how “they would never make it!” The racism and classism were palatable and yet they persevered. Through it ALL they made it to the TOP of the tennis world and the sports world on a global scale. They stood on the shoulders of those greats that came before them. And now they are BOTH Legends! They have changed the game in so many ways! The work Serena and her sister Venus have yet to do will no doubt be even MORE impactful than what they have already accomplished! Stay tuned!