Serena and Venus Williams: Tennis Champions, Body Image Heroes

Laurie and Debbie say:

Serena Williams, U.S. Open Women’s Champion, and her older sister Venus Williams, who lost to Serena in a very closely fought quarterfinal match last week, are two of the best, if not the two best, women tennis players in the world.

Serena Williams

They’ve been playing and winning professionally for over 13 years, nearly half their lives (Venus is 28 and Serena is 26). The two of them revolutionized women’s tennis, bringing in a previously unknown level of strength and power. Their skill and popularity are almost certainly a major factor in the recent shift in which women’s tennis prizes are equal to men’s–the only major sport for which this is true. (Wimbledon moved to offer the women champions equal prizes in 2007, the last Grand Slam tournament venue to do so.)

Venus Williams

All major sports champions are tough-minded and competitive; you have to be to get there. One thing we like about the Williams sisters is that they not only play tough-minded and competitive, they also show that side of themselves between games, between sets, between matches. Searching Google images yields lots of hyper-girly images of the Williams sisters, and a disturbing (but not surprising) number of photographs clearly set for sexiness, but that’s not what you see when you watch them play. Debbie has very clear memories of watching the 2007 Australian Open, in which Serena Williams made mincemeat of Maria Sharapova, never once disguising her “I’m better than you and I’ll prove it” attitude. (She’d been through a two-year losing spell and arrived at the tournament ranking 81st. And she won it.)

We just love knowing that not all tennis players are tall, thin, pretty blonde women … although some of them pack a mighty mean tennis punch. The Williams sisters, because of how they play and how they look, provide a lot of young African-American women with images of themselves in an arena that otherwise would feel closed to them; for all of us, they open up the range of beauty beyond the narrow cut that the culture tries to impose.

(P.S. Want a new definition of “surreal”? Surreal is being in an airport, watching the Williams’ sisters quarterfinal on a TV with the sound off … because a nearby TV with the sound on is broadcasting Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech. Really. Debbie tried it, so you don’t have to.)