As I write this, Serena Williams is celebrating yet another win in her storied career: The 23-time Grand Slam champion advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon for the twelfth time on Tuesday, defeating fellow American Alison Riske and proving that as a mom, mogul and living legend, Williams is still a force to be reckoned with on the tennis court. And as if that’s not enough, she is simultaneously confronting beauty standards head-on (and with her famed backside) on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, appearing unretouched for their August issue—and Williams is holding nothing back.
Inside the issue, it’s Williams’ voice that shines in a first-person essay penned for the magazine that addresses the sexism, racism and derision she’s faced in her now decades-long, still-winning career, and that infamous 2018 U.S. Open Finals match against Naomi Osaka, in which Williams was severely penalized for challenging the referee. Even upon Osaka’s rightful triumph, it seemed neither player was truly allowed to emerge the winner.
As The Root’s staff writer Anne Branigin wrote at the time, “we [had], once again, the public reckoning of what it looks like when institutional racism and sexism mar a sport. ... Williams and Osaka deserved so much more than that. Black women deserve more than that. Women of color and tennis fans and anyone who cares about witnessing genius in its prime deserve more than that.”
As Williams recalls:
In the end, my opponent simply played better than me that day and ended up winning her first Grand Slam title. I could not have been happier for her. As for me, I felt defeated and disrespected by a sport that I love—one that I had dedicated my life to and that my family truly changed, not because we were welcomed, but because we wouldn’t stop winning. ...
Not only was a game taken from me but a defining, triumphant moment was taken from another player, something she should remember as one of the happiest memories in her long and successful career. My heart broke. I started to think again, “What could I have done better? Was I wrong to stand up?”
For Williams, the answer involved some soul-searching—including taking a brief break from tennis and entering therapy as she tried to parse out her own conflicting feelings about what had transpired upon the court, and how it had affected Osaka, a young, black and Japanese player who considered Williams inspiration for her own growing championship career.
In the end, Williams found the answer in an apology, writing, “[f]inally I realized that there was only one way for me to move forward. It was time for me to apologize to the person who deserved it the most.” The message she penned to Osaka read as follows:
“Hey, Naomi! It’s Serena Williams. As I said on the court, I am so proud of you and I am truly sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing in sticking up for myself. But I had no idea the media would pit us against each other. I would love the chance to live that moment over again. I am, was, and will always be happy for you and supportive of you. I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan! I wish you only success today and in the future. Once again, I am so proud of you. All my love and your fan, Serena.”
And proving that one graceful serve deserves another, Osaka’s response epitomized the black girl magic we likely all wish we’d had a chance to see on the U.S. Open court last September. As William shared:
When Naomi’s response came through, tears rolled down my face. “People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two,” she said graciously. “No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing.”
The fact that the two were able to create a space for compassion that their chosen sport (and many in the world) would not allow them speaks volumes of the power of each—and of what sisterhood can truly look like in action. That such an incredible moment, kept private until now, had to come at the widely publicized expense of each is a reckoning the world needs to have with itself, as Branigin also noted:
“It is a story we must tell, the story of how a women’s rage—how the rage of black women in particular—is marginalized and vilified.”
For this reason, it’s especially thrilling to hear Williams share the unheard outcome of the story and reclaim the all-too-common narrative that seeks to cast black women as combative, back-biting and incapable of fair play, grace, and sisterhood. As she writes for Bazaar, it’s a narrative Williams is hoping to change for herself, her daughter, and black women and girls everywhere.
I’ve been called every name in the book. I’ve been shamed because of my body shape. I’ve been paid unequally because of my sex. I’ve been penalized a game in the final of a Major because I expressed my opinion or grunted too loudly...And these are only the things that are seen by the public. In short, it’s never been easy. But then I think of the next girl who is going to come along who looks like me, and I hope, ‘Maybe, just maybe, my voice will help her.’
The Glow Up tip: The August 2019 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, featuring Serena Williams, is available on newsstands July 23.