KineSophy Hall of Fame: Serena and Venus Williams

Continuing this year’s presentation of the ethics of human movement in real life, this month features two more inductees into the KineSophy Hall of Fame: American tennis players Serena and Venus Williams. To force these exemplary sisters to share the spotlight perhaps does not give each woman her due, yet Serena and Venus remain inextricably linked by their remarkable achievements and profound social influence on and off the tennis courts. In the following description of their achievements, I will do my best to distinguish their individual accomplishments.

KineSophy Hall of Fame: Serena and Venus Williams
Venus Williams

Venus Williams was born on June 17, 1980 in Lynwood, California. Along with her sister Serena, Venus learned to play tennis on the publiccourts of Los Angeles. She turned pro in 1994 at the age of fourteen and won her first major tournaments, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, in 2000. That same year, she won the singles gold medal and partnered with Serena to win the doubles gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The sisters won the doubles gold medal again at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome. Despite her health problems, she and Serena successfully defended their doubles gold at the 2012 Olympics in London, England. In her career to date, Venus Williams has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and four Olympic gold medals.

Serena Williams was born on September 26, 1981 and began practicing tennis at the age of three. Like Venus, she turned pro at the age of fourteen. She won her first Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open, in 1999. In 2002, she won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, beating Venus in the final of each tournament. She captured her first Australian Open title in 2003 to become the reigning champion of each of the four majors and the sixth woman to complete a career Grand Slam. In 2003, she underwent knee surgery to repair a quadriceps tendon tear, and her Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranking dropped as low as 139 during her comeback. She returned to the top of the rankings in 2009, only to undergo surgery to remove a blood clot from her lung. Yet once again she rebounded on the court, winning the singles and doubles gold medals at the 2012 Olympics. After winning Wimbledon in 2015, she reigned as champion of the four major tournaments for the second time in her career. She has won twenty-two Grand Slams (tied for most all-time with Steffi Graf) and four Olympic gold medals in her career thus far. She also created the Serena Williams Foundation to build schools in Africa.

Beyond their incredible on-court success, the Williams sisters have been voices and symbols for social justice throughout their careers. This role has not been without controversy. In 2001, Venus withdrew from a semifinal match against Serena at a tournament (now called the BNP Paribas Open) in the southern California town of Indian Wells four minutes before the scheduled start time, citing tendinitis in her knee (Competitors typically withdraw at least thirty minutes before a match to allow tournament officials time to make contingency plans.) Some speculated that Richard Williams, Venus’ and Serena’s father, was trying to manipulate which sister would win and had asked Venus to withdraw. The Indian Wells crowd booked Venus and Richard as they walked to their seats for the final match, and Richard later claimed he was taunted with racial epithets: “People kept calling me ‘n—r.’ One said, ‘I wish it was ‘75, we’d skin you alive,’” (Drucker 2009). After Serena won the tournament, the sisters boycotted the Indian Wells event for over a decade, risking suspension for their refusal to play in this WTA mandatory tournament. Serena finally returned to Indian Wells in 2015, Venus in 2016.

In 1998, at the age of eighteen, Venus protested the inequality of the monetary prizes for the men’s and women’s champions at Wimbledon, saying “I think in the Grand Slam events, it should be equal pay, and I think the ladies should do something about it instead of just accepting it for years to come,” (Ford 2014). At that time, the U.S. Open was the only Grand Slam tournament to award equal prize money. In 2005, the day before she would win Wimbledon, Venus met with the board of the host All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) to renew her demand for equal prizes. As a result, the board increased the prize money for women, though it still fell below the men’s purse. AELTC chairman Tim Phillips argued that the longer men’s matches (best of five sets compared the women’s best of three) justified the prize discrepancy.

The following year, Venus wrote an op-ed letter with input from the WTA that appeared in The Times of London the Monday before the start of Wimbledon. In her letter, Venus wrote that the prize inequality “devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message,” (Sreedhar 2015).

She went on to counter Phillips’ argument by pointing out that women and men were given equal billing at major tournaments, implying that players of both genders created equal value for those events. Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair endorsed equal pay following Venus’ letter, and in November 2006, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) partnered with the WTA and named Venus a “Global Promoter of Gender Equality.” The following year, Venus won Wimbledon after the announcement that men’s and women’s winners would earn equal prize money.

KineSophy Hall of Fame: Serena and Venus Williams
Serena Williams

While not as outspoken as her sister, Serena has become a strong female African-American role model in her own right. The Williams sisters have revolutionized women’s with their power, athleticism and emotion, and that revolution has led to significant racist and sexist opposition. Shamil Tarpischev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, described the Williams sisters as “brothers” and called them “scary” to look at (Rankine 2015). Internet detractors and other players have also resorted to racist and misogynist stereotypes. On court, Serena does not hold back her emotions. She yells at officials for questionable calls and celebrates victories. Supporters have suggested that those uncomfortable with Serena’s emotional displays are in fact uncomfortable with a black woman dominating the sport and not being afraid to show it. Serena is aware of her fans and detractors and her place in history but she remains driven to succeed on the court.

“I play for me,” Serena said in a 2015 interview for the New York Times Magazine, ‘‘but I also play and represent something much greater than me. I embrace that. I love that. I want that. So ultimately, when I am out there on the court, I am playing for me… But I’m always going to be myself. If anything happens, I’m always going to be myself, true to myself,” (Rankine 2015).

For their individual excellence in women’s tennis, their social consciousness, their acceptance of being powerful, female, African-American role models, their resilience in the face of racial and gender discrimination, and their unwillingness to conform to the unfair expectations of their detractors, KineSophy inducts Serena and Venus Williams into its Hall of Fame.