How Serena redefined achievement, ambition and greatness


After Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open in January, she had us buzzing about the power and perfection of her game: It was her record-setting 23rd Grand Slam win. When we found out in April that she was eight weeks pregnant at the time she defeated her sister Venus (and all six of her previous tourney opponents) in straight sets in Melbourne, she ignited an entirely different conversation: "She did WHAT while she was WHAT?"

In the months leading up to and since the September birth of her daughter, as fans and pundits alike speculated on her potential return next month to defend that Aussie Open title, Serena Williams proved her greatness in a different way -- she may be the only athlete who can so dominate the conversation even when she isn't playing. Questions swirl not only about how she might return to the court, but also why. For every commentator who wonders if age and the physical toll of pregnancy shouldn't be the bellwether of Williams' retirement, there is one who also opines on why a woman would even want to continue playing post-pregnancy, as if it were not 2017 and she were not Serena.

That we are engaged in a new and more complex conversation around women and achievement and ambition and motherhood in this particular year is no coincidence. This was the year Hollywood took us on a time-travel adventure to revisit the pain and glory that was Billie Jean King's Battle of the Sexes, the first time an on-court performance ignited a debate around women and their capacity, willingness and ability to compete. It then became the year when that battle took on an entirely new dimension, as one powerful man after another in Hollywood, in business and ultimately also in sports fell in the wake of the #MeToo movement. This was the year when you could draw a straight line from King's advocacy around women's competitive opportunity -- and their compensation -- to the standoff between USA Hockey and the women's national team over pay equity. When that governing body tried to replace those striking ice queens with younger models, to break them before their World Championships, girls and women at all levels raised their voices in unity, refusing to break ranks or break the strike. They won. On the ice and off.

Through it all, Serena Williams -- like each of these women in sports and beyond -- has found her voice in a unique and distinctive way. Once asked if she was one of the greatest female athletes of all time, Serena coolly responded, "I prefer ... one of the greatest athletes of all time."

Now, like the champion shotmaker she is, Serena cuts through what we imagined to be a complex dilemma for achieving women everywhere by eschewing 120 mph verbal aces and explosive rallies where a simple drop shot is all the more effective for its soft touch: "I don't think my story is over yet."

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