What Can A Woman Athlete Look Like? Serena Williams Changed our Answer

By Kyla Guilfoil, Editor-in-Chief

For decades, women athletes have been defined not just by their skills on the field or the court, but also by their bodies. 

From soccer to tennis to ballet to swimming, a woman athlete is expected to look a certain way. Be strong, but don’t let us see too many muscles. Be fast, but be quiet. Be great, but don’t take up too much space. 

Serena Williams didn’t listen. 

Williams was the opposite of everything tennis looked for: Black, poor, loud and muscular as hell. 

Beginning on the neighborhood courts in Compton, California, Williams’ father pushed Williams, alongside her sister Venus, to be the greatest of all time, despite all odds.

From the early days, Williams took titles, ranking No. 1 in junior national championships before she turned 10. 

In Oct. 1995, at just 14 years old, Williams went pro. By the time she was 17, she had won the U.S. Open. 

Since then, Williams boasts 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era, and the second-most of all time.

For a total of 319 weeks, Williams was ranked world No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), including a joint-record 186 consecutive weeks, and finished as the year-end No. 1 five times.

This year, almost 30 years after her professional debut, Williams retired. 

Through criticism, racism and sexism, Williams held onto her spirit, playing her final match in a sparkly black outfit with diamonds in her hair. 

 Her persona has created a brand that didn’t exist before her, especially within tennis. 

The top tennis players were white, thin and of European descent by and large. They wore traditional tennis skirts and pinned their hair back in sleek ponytails. 

When Williams stepped onto the courts in the late 90s, she wore her braids in beads and began experimenting with her match outfits. 

While her style has evolved, Williams has always made statements with her often custom match outfits. 

At the 2018 French Open, Williams returned to the court after giving birth to her daughter, donning a head-to-toe black spandex catsuit designed by Nike. 

Despite the design of the outfit, which Williams said was a nod to “Black Panther,”, the catsuit was a high-compression garment that could help with blood clots, an issue Williams battled for years. 

Nonetheless, the outfit did not fit expectations for the event, and the French Tennis Federation actually banned Williams from wearing such a suit to another match. 

“It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place,” Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, told “Tennis magazine” in 2018. 

It wasn’t only the clothes that Williams wore to the court that bothered the tennis community–it was the body that was underneath them. 

Maria Sharapova, who held a 15-year rivalry with Williams, wrote about Williams’ body in her 2017 memoir, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far.” 

“First of all, her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV,” Sharapova writes. “She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall.”

Sharapova, who is 6’2, is actually about 5 inches taller than Williams. 

“In analyzing this, people talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and, sure there is truth to all of that; but, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”

Sharapova and Williams played a total of 48 sets between 2004 and 2019. Williams won 41 of those sets. Sharapova won only two matches against Williams, both within the first year of their rivalry. 

People wanted Williams to be ashamed of her body, of her strength. But she didn’t let that show, she just kept winning. 

Williams is a power on the court that most in the sport believed wasn’t acceptable. Her power, her war-cries when she launched the ball at a speed no one could match and her confidence shook the world’s understanding of what a female athlete can be. 

Today, Williams has become not only known as the GOAT, but also as a style icon. Sponsored by Nike and styled by major designers at exclusive red-carpet events, Williams’ look has found remarkable success since her debut in 1995. 

Through almost 30 years of resistance, Williams held onto it all: her style, her strength and her voice. 

Williams leaves the world of professional sports behind much differently than it was before her. Women of color have continued to break ranks in the last two decades, inching closer to equality in athletics. 

For all women, I think, Williams has redefined what “the best” looks like. You don’t have to be smaller, or quieter, to gain the respect of a sport. You can yell, take up space, take your win with a power women aren’t supposed to know.