Let’s talk, for just a minute, about what Serena Williams did this year.
She played in 82 matches and won 78 of them. On clay, the surface that’s supposed to be her weakest, she walked on the court 28 times and walked off it a winner in every single instance. She won two more majors, the 16th and 17th of her career (she’s up to 32 counting doubles and mixed doubles), and lost only two sets in the process. At times, it seemed the only opponent Serena had was Serena, like when she spotted Na Li a 6-2 first set victory in the WTA Championships. That day, she still won, losing just three games in the next two sets and not a single one in the decisive third. After losing early in two early-season tournaments, she fell short of the finals just once more all year. By the time it was over, she had played in 16 tournaments, reached 13 finals, and won 11 of them.
And she did it all at age 31, around the time when tennis players are supposed to start feeling old. The power starts to leak away, the finesse becomes a little less…finesse. The youngsters, the rivals who have snatched victories before but have mostly been waiting for your knees to get a little creakier, your backhand a little sloppier, start to take it away from you. That’s what happened to Roger Federer, 31 himself, who went major-less for just the second time since 2002. It isn’t what happened to Serena, who’s now the seventh-oldest grand slam champion, male or female, in tennis history.
There’s the obvious excuse of women’s tennis being down, of that somehow clouding her accomplishments. That, and the fact that Serena so thoroughly dispatched of her rivals means it’s entirely possible that we didn’t even realize how dominant she was. When she won it felt boring, anti-climactic. What else was there to say? When she lost, as she did to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon, it seemed impossible, so unexpected that it zapped most of the desire to pay any more attention. Why the hell would we watch the rest of the tournament now?
Serena is influential in part because, at least for now, she is women’s tennis, and she reminded the world of that fact in 2013. In the years she was injured or away, the game seemed fragile and searching for a star to help it. With her back, it helped women’s tennis and the sport’s fans live in the now, enjoying the sunshine of the dominant superstar’s return whilst ignoring the ever-present questions about what in the world it was going to do when she was gone. Serena even helped answer those questions — her loss to Sloane Stephens in Australia gave American fans a glimpse of another Next Big Thing, someone that would be there when Serena wasn’t anymore. And one day, she won’t be. So enjoy her now, because what we witnessed from the younger Williams sister in 2013 was the type of comeback that exists only among the rarest of athletes, those who can seemingly flip the switch back to “ON” and make us forget how much work goes into being that much better than everyone else.
But Serena’s on-court dominance wasn’t all that made her an influential athlete in 2013. Williams (like her sister) has always been a lightning rod, whether because of her race, her body, the fact that she has always bucked the tennis establishment, or her inability or unwillingness or whatever it is to say what the nice little tennis girl is supposed to say. 2013 was no different, not in a year where she had high-profile spats with both Stephens and Maria Sharapova, not in a year where she dealt with rumors about possible romance with her new coach, not in a year where she said rather unfortunate things about a rape victim.
And yet we — and maybe she, and maybe everyone else — learned from all of them. Her back-and-forth with Stephens about whether she was a mentor or not was evidence of both racial and gender stereotypes we apply to athletes — why, after all, did we need Serena to be a mentor to Stephens, when we’d never ask the same of Federer? The romance with her coach became the subject of stories about how he had “saved” her career, as if a woman who had spent the better part of a decade thrashing the tennis world seemingly whenever she wanted to needed saving at all.
Then there were the rape comments, the suggestion that the Steubenville rape victim was at least partially at fault and then the bumbling apology that seemed to miss the point as well. The comments were inexcusable, a reminder of how far our society has to go to fully appreciate the horrors sexual assault victims face when even someone who’s spent her entire life battling for women’s equality can make a mess of the subject too. She later tried to make amends, highlighting her foundation’s work on women’s equality and meeting with the family.
If her fans embrace Serena’s “bad girl,” no-care image as pushing back against the subconscious stereotype that requires our female athletes act more proper than men, her comments about the Steubenville victim show that those efforts can have their own ugly consequences too: the brash Serena that draws so much criticism in this instance truly deserved every bit of anger that flowed her way, and that should be a reminder that none of our athletes — even those we hold up as barrier-breakers and stereotype-busters — are above reproach, especially not when their actions or words work to undermine the very causes they are, in part, championing.
And maybe that’s the root of Serena’s influence. With her, we’ve always had to take the great with the less-than, the woman who refused to conform with the person who, at times, needed to change. We’ve had to balance the intensely-focused competitor with the athlete who can seem aloof and disconnected. And we’ve had to ask ourselves whether we’re judging all of those qualities the same way we would if she looked like the tennis stars who came before her or was the same gender as the only tennis stars on her level now, while at the same time asking ourselves if we’re judging her the way we would were she not such an icon. It’s never simple with Serena, and perhaps that more than anything makes her more influential both on the court and off than any woman in sports.
Others we considered:
Brittney Griner: Griner and her Baylor basketball team stumbled in her final NCAA Tournament, but her year was just getting started. The Phoenix Mercury made her the number one pick of the WNBA Draft in April, right after she came out as gay, a decision that, given her attendance at rigidly-Baptist Baylor, brought attention to the fact that women’s sports aren’t always the easy, open place for LGBT athletes we make them out to be. The WNBA had big plans for Griner, making her the center-piece of a new marketing strategy, and so did Nike, the company that signed her to an endorsement deal that let her market men’s clothing. Griner’s effect went beyond being a gay athlete — she’s a gender-bending gay athlete too, and her fashion and a profile in ESPN The Magazine put her at the forefront of a larger discussion about gender stereotypes (and a fashion movement) in basketball and other sports. She carried herself fine on the court too, scoring 12.6 points and grabbing 6.3 rebounds per game while helping carry the Mercury to the Western Conference semifinals in a season that may have been a turning point for the league. Griner’s influence on women’s basketball — and on the culture around her — will only grow as her career goes on.
Abby Wambach: It’d be hard to imagine Wambach improving on 2011, when she scored the iconic goal of the Women’s World Cup and led the U.S. to the finals, or 2012, when she carried the Americans to Olympic gold. But in a June match against South Korea, Wambach made history, scoring her 159th career international goal to pass Mia Hamm as the all-time leading scorer in American history, male or female. That wasn’t all: Wambach also starred for the Western New York Flash in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League, and for anyone who saw her play in her hometown of Rochester, as I did in September, her influence on the league that is hoping to find stability previous editions never could is undeniable. In a sport that is growing in popularity in the United States, Wambach is still American soccer’s biggest star.