After one of the most impressive and dominating years of her career, Serena Williams has been named the 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year.
Serena is the third woman to receive the honor outright since its inception back in 1954, and the first since Mary Decker won the award back in 1983 — a span of 32 years.
At an age when most of her peers are well into retirement, the 34-year-old won the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon in succession for the first time in her storied career. This gave her the second Serena Slam in her career — meaning she held all four major titles at once — and put her in contention to capture the Calendar Slam and tie Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slams. She fell just short, falling to Italian Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, but still finished the year ranked No. 1 by a wide margin.
Despite other contenders such as Jordan Spieth and the horse American Pharoah (the Triple Crown winner who actually won the online readers’ poll for the award), Serena certainly deserved the award. It’s merely surprising that it took so long.
Overall, there have been only 10 women given the honor at Sports Illustrated. Billie Jean King was the first back in 1972, but she shared the honor with UCLA coach John Wooden that year. Chris Evert was the first woman to receive the award solo in 1976, followed by Decker in 1983.
Mary Lou Retton was a co-winner with track star Edwin Moses in 1984, while in 1987, both Judi Brown King and Patty Sheehan were part of a group of eight athletes honored by the magazine for their work in the community. Bonnie Blair shared her honor in 1994 with another speed skater, Johann Olav Koss, and in 1999, the U.S. Women’s National Team received the award as a group.
Pat Summit, the head coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, was the most recent woman to receive the award when she shared it with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2011.
Serena has often been on the short-list for the Sportsperson of the Year award, but has always fallen short of winning it. This year, former U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick wrote on SI.com that the world No. 1 shouldn’t be discounted just because she’s been so great for so long:
The story of Serena Williams’s 2015 season is not new and it’s not shiny. It’s not a developing story a la Ronda Rousey or Carli Lloyd. There was a lot of sentiment around the U.S. women’s national team and Lloyd specifically this year — which there should have been — but that’s kind of what Serena does every year. That’s what she’s done for 16 years now. We can’t penalize Serena because she’s been winning everything for so long. Someone shouldn’t be punished because we’ve grown to expect it from them.
Sports Illustrated has long been under the microscope for its treatment of female athletes. Outside of its annual Swimsuit Issue it’s rare to see women on the cover of the weekly magazine, and when female athletes do get showcased, the magazine has been accused of over-sexualizing them.
There have already been criticisms that Serena’s Sportsperson of the Year cover is inappropriate, but the shot was actually her idea, intended “to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, power.”
As S.L. Price wrote in the story accompanying the honor, this award was given to Serena not only because of what she accomplished on the court — overcoming injuries and illnesses to win three majors in a row — but also what she accomplished off the court, returning to the tournament in Indian Wells for the first time since being subjected to racist chants from the crowd back in 2001, and using her platform to speak up about social injustices.
“This year was spectacular for me,” Serena wrote on Instagram. “For SportsIllustrated to recognize my hard work, my dedication, and my sheer determination gives me hope to continue on and do better. As I always say, it takes a village it’s not just one person. This is not just an accomplishment for me, but for my whole team. I am beyond honored. I love you guys! 2016? #letsdoit”