While many of you were sleeping, Serena Williams made history again by winning her 23rd grand slam at the Australian Open in Melbourne. It was yet another sister act against Venus Williams, and they both came to play.
Venus has beaten Serena nearly a dozen times — more than any other player in the world — and literally knocked Serena off her game momentarily. Serena slipped, smashed her racket and paid her big sister back on Venus’ next serve, eventually going on to win the singles championship in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.
“I’ve been chasing it for a really long time,” Serena said of her milestone in a televised news conference. “It’s really a great feeling.”
It was a milestone set in place by Althea Gibson 60 years ago in Australia, when she became the first black woman as a doubles champion and singles finalist in 1957.
It was a milestone that moved Serena back on top to a No. 1 world ranking by breaking Steffi Graf’s record of 22 grand slam titles. And Serena is just one slam away of winning 24 to break the record of retired Australian champion Margaret Court, now 71, who watched the match from the stands.
Serena is ranked right up there with LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, who sent her a few of his custom sneakers with an encouraging note and reminder of her winning ways as she headed into the finals.
In fact, she has been ranked as the best athlete, period, as Sports Illustrated noted in selecting Serena as the first woman in three decades to grace its cover as Sportsperson of the Year in 2015. That’s when she was just a title away from achieving a calendar grand slam — winning four consecutive major tournaments in a single year.
In her SI acceptance speech, she conveyed her pride with being named Sportsperson of the Year and not Sportswoman of the Year. She also made it clear that she wasn’t done yet, closing with a line from the late poet Maya Angelou — “And still like dust, I rise!”
Serena has redefined the phrase “play like a girl” perhaps more than any other woman. She plays on her own terms, tuning out naysayers while letting her racket speak — loudly and victoriously over and over again.
She’s won against the odds, the death of a sister, the haters and racists, the injuries and even the blood clots in both lungs. It took lots of love and support, discipline, hard work, determination, self-belief and faith in “Jehovah God,” she says.
As a result, Serena has broken all sorts of records and made all sorts of history. At age 21, she won a career slam in singles, winning the four major Grand Slam tournaments between 1999 and 2003 (Wimbledon as well as the Australian, French and U.S. Opens). She and Venus also won a career slam in doubles between 1999 and 2001.
Together and separately, the Williams sisters have inspired legions of girls by remaining unapologetically and uniquely Serena and Venus — in other words Fierce. And at 35 and 36, respectively, they are among the oldest women in the game.
Both sisters consider meeting on the court as a magical thing and competition at its finest. “It was quite momentous,” Venus told reporters, noting that she likes to see the Williams name on trophies, win or lose. “This is a beautiful thing.”
During the awards ceremony at the Australian Open, Serena thanked Venus for her victory.
“She’s my inspiration,” Serena said. “She’s the only reason I’m standing here today and the only reason the Williams sisters exist.”
“She’s an amazing person. There’s no way I’d be at 23 without her. There’s no way I would be at one without her. There’s no way I’d have anything without her.”
“It’s stuff that legends are made of,” Serena said later. “I couldn’t have written a better story.”
Yanick Rice Lamb, who teaches journalism at Howard University, is co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com. A so-so tennis player who loves the court, she is also co-author of Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson.