I've been reflecting on what Serena Williams means to me since she announced she's closing the tennis chapter of her life, and especially since she played what's believed to be her last Grand Slam match on Friday, Sept. 2.
I started playing sports when I was 8. I ran track and played basketball throughout middle and high school and continued my hoop career in college. Every trial I was navigating at the time, Serena had already been there and usually won. It was affirming and even healing to see. She has been a blueprint to win and I applied it to my own life and won, too.
Serena's entire career has felt like a love letter to me personally. So, Serena, here's my love letter back to you.
I am a proud Michigan supremacist (LOL) and I've always claimed you as a fellow Michigander since you were born in Saginaw, which is about 30 minutes from my hometown of Flint Township. It's a stretch, I know, but a connection I'm proud of and always brag about.
The mid-2000s are when I was finding my stride as a young athlete. I'd never played any sport before but decided to join the elementary school track team, mostly to hang out with my friends, but I was OK with running a little if that's what it took.
Turns out, at the first practice, I was the fastest girl on the team. The coach put me in three events: the 400m (what I later became known for), the 200m and the 4x100m relay. I won them all at our first and only track meet. One of the wins was very dramatic: In the relay, I was the anchor. By the time I got the baton, another runner was way ahead of me and most people thought the race was over. I got that baton and I don't think I've ever run faster in my life in an attempt to walk her down and win. I did. The next few weeks at school were like my victory laps, so many congratulations and applause when I passed by. They were my very first wins, but at the time I remember thinking, yeah, I'm not surprised. I had trained and knew what I could do. It was just the first time other people saw it.
I imagine that's what you felt like when you won your very first Grand Slam in 1999 at the U.S. Open, becoming the first Black woman to win a major tennis championship since Althea Gibson in 1958. And your next two wins, the 2002 French Open and Wimbledon that same year, confirmed for you what the world was only learning: You were taking over the tennis world.
I stacked up wins and medals at my next track meets to the point that I started to feel guilty for winning every single race. But then I saw you winning back to back, without remorse, and that gave me permission to keep winning, instead of feeling bad about always beating everyone else. And when my winning streak did end, as it always inevitably does, I was glad I didn't shortchange myself.
I saw you winning back to back, without remorse, and that gave me permission to keep winning, instead of feeling bad about always beating everyone else.
In middle school, I started playing basketball in addition to running track. Middle school, of course, is the most awkward time of life. I actually made out all right and was well liked. But there was one thing I always got bullied for: my body. Like other middle schoolers, I was growing into my frame. I was in seventh grade with a six-pack. I had muscular arms, muscular shoulders and muscular legs. While competing, my muscles would bulge and become even more noticeable. The boys at school started calling me "six-pack" because it was so "unheard of" for a girl to have muscles. It got to the point where none of them even called me Randi anymore, just "six-pack," or their other favorite, "muscle booty."
Imagine criticizing a male athlete for having too athletic of a body.
Their words broke my confidence. Yeah, I was winning all my races and games, but will anyone ever date "six-pack"? While I was navigating this school drama, you were in the middle of getting the same criticism ... from the whole world. I can't imagine. My middle school years were 2010-2012 and during that time you won four Grand Slams. I remember thinking, "I guess this nonsense is just a part of being a Black woman athlete. Serena looks like me, is facing similar criticism and is winning. So will I."
Fast forward to high school and I won countless medals in track and won just as many basketball games. I wanted to win, and that was enough. But I was still healing from the previous name calling. I don't think I fully healed until recently, when I heard you say something that really stuck with me. You said, "My body lets me do everything I want." That's so true. The remnants of my past hurt dissolved with that sentence.
I graduated high school in 2016. You had 22 Grand Slams by then. I started college that fall at Brown University as a member of the basketball team. I'm from a predominantly Black city and went to a mostly Black high school, so college was the first time I had white teammates. And not just any white teammates, but wealthy white teammates who had clearly never had a Black teammate before. I'm sure you can imagine the uncomfortable situations I endured and the microaggressive comments I heard. One in particular stands out to me.
My teammates and I all showered in one huge wet area with several shower heads, the standard for college athletics. One day I slipped into the shower when I thought everyone had already left. I was uncomfortable showering in front of others and usually walked back to my dorm to do so. But not this day. I went into the wet area and started my shower and then all of a sudden my teammate was greeting me, striking up conversation even. She was in the shower, just as casual as ever. Meanwhile, I gasped, shocked. What was she doing here? I could feel her looking me up and down and I hated the feeling of her scanning my body with her eyes. I reached down to grab my soap and she said, "You're built like Serena Williams."
I was appalled. She kept talking and I remember thinking, "Why are you talking to me naked and wet? Why are you looking at me? Why are you evaluating my body?" Serena, believe me, in any other context a comparison to you would be the highlight of my day. But I was just disgusted. I felt violated.
I'd previously learned from you that my body lets me do everything I want. A few days after the shower incident, I had a workout with the same teammate and a couple coaches, who put us through one-on-one drills. I was winning the drill. In the next round, I crossed her up and completely blew by her. She said she twisted her ankle and ended the drill early to go to the athletic trainer's office for treatment. I am not celebrating her injury, and she ended up being completely fine and started back at practice the next day, but I remember sauntering off the court thinking, "Yeah, I can do that because I'm built like Serena Williams."
At every crossroad I encountered as a Black female athlete, you, Serena, were there as the blueprint. You had been there and conquered it. I have always leaned on you and your career as support and motivation. When I think about the difficulties you must have endured in the tennis world — surely much greater than mine — while dominating the sport for the last 27 years, it moves me to tears.
You have carried young Black girls on your back while carving out a hard-fought lane for all of us. I’ve been thinking about ways to describe how you’ve personally impacted me — after all, we’ve never met. But it feels like we have. If I had to describe what you mean to me in two words, it’s simple: your presence.
Your presence is what kept me inspired. Your presence is what affirmed me. Your presence is what influenced me. Your presence is why you're a champion. And your presence isn't going anywhere. Your presence on active player rosters in tennis may be over, but your presence in the sport, in your work and in the lives of so many is far from being over. It's your presence that I'm grateful to experience.
Serena, I have one last thing to say in an effort to inspire you like you've done for me all these years.
As a young Black woman who wants a family one day, I admired your decision to step away from tennis to expand your family. I congratulate you on making such a hard-pressed decision. You have done enough for tennis. At the same time, I watched your last run at the U.S. Open. You fought hard until the last, nail-biting second. I remember thinking "She. Can. Win." And I bet you thought the same.
If you think you can win, you go out there to win.
You said it best: You have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. This would be to relive the winning feeling similar to your very first Grand Slam.
Serena, you have made tennis synonymous with Serena. Congratulations on all your success.
I love who you've been and who you will be in this next chapter of your life.
Thank you for everything.