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Serena Williams insists audiences see her, not just her stats

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Picture: EPA/Jason Szenes Serena Williams of the United States returns a serve from Danka Kovinic of Montenegro at the US Open Tennis Championships in Flushing Meadows, New York, on August 29, 2022. She wore black – the antithesis of tennis whites. Her skirt fluttered as she ran and leaped. Her bloomers glittered. Her hair was adorned with crystals, the writer says.

By Robin Givhan

No other athlete has left a more substantial mark on the fashion world – and thus our visual vocabulary, our understanding of beauty, our definition of femininity, our sense of identity – simply by virtue of her presence than Serena Williams. In August, she announced her retirement from tennis in the pages of Vogue magazine, what some still consider the fashion industry’s bible, or at least its most influential publication. And now she’s in the midst of the US Open, in what’s expected to be her last tournament.

In making her historic announcement, Williams didn’t let someone else tell her story – no sportswriter, no fashion editor, no high academic. She told it herself in the form of an essay that she graciously allowed someone else to transcribe. She is “evolving”, Williams said of her decision. She would not be what expectations demanded.

Williams is the magazine’s September cover girl, and she stares down readers in a sea-blue Balenciaga gown with a rippling train that caresses her curves like the tide washing over beach rocks. Her hair – crinkly, a little frizzy, hangs nearly to her waist. Fashion loves to put athletes on the cover of its glossy magazines in March or April or maybe July when they want to have a conversation about shape, fitness or body positivity – the narrative we find most comfortable when considering the Black female body.

But Williams is on the September cover. And not to get into the fine details of the magazine business, September remains the month devoted to fashion in all its glory. Indeed, an entire documentary, “The September Issue,” was devoted to this typically behemoth publication. To be on the cover is to signify fashion. And that’s both complicated and powerful.

Williams is insisting that the world see her, not just her game. Not just the trophies. Not just the stats.

The tennis star loves fashion. She has studied it; she launched her own label. She went through the gruelling and unnerving experience of mounting a runway show which, to be clear, is not for the cowardly. The collective mood of the typical industry audience may best be described as impatient ennui. Williams’s stubborn enthusiasm has never abated.

And over the years, she refused to transform herself for the industry; she has remained Serena in all the complexity that implies. Child of Compton. Tennis phenomenon. Self-made woman. Black woman. Black woman. The beads of her youth may be gone. (Her daughter Olympia wears them now.) The clothes are custom instead of home-made. But Williams’s style expresses the same sense of fairytale-hardscrabble-glamour that has always been essential to her public identity.

She defined her style through the lens of Black culture, not a Eurocentric one. And she has entered the final hours of her historic tennis career with a nail art manicure that boldly rebukes traditions of gentility. Her hair remains stubbornly kinky and boisterously unruly; it’s political even if it’s simply meant to be pretty. It’s political and so it’s worth noting. Her muscle mass is defiantly unfeminine but only because our idea of this gendered notion has always been too narrow and confining.

Williams has not changed and that is quite something. Fashion has a way of swallowing people whole. It transforms those that it admires. It files down the sharp edges and polishes up the rough spots. It woos them and bullies them into a pre-existing template. Women are whitewashed. They shrink.

Williams has only grown. She forced critics – including me – to let her be.

When she walked onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday evening, she sparkled like a starlet. She was a human kaleidoscope reflecting history, prejudices and possibilities. She removed her long shimmering overskirt and put it aside, like a superhero slipping off her wrap before settling into the very human business of a match that began, for her, shakily. She wore black – the antithesis of tennis whites. Her skirt fluttered as she ran and leaped. Her bloomers glittered. Her hair was adorned with crystals. And when she won, she twirled – a bit of girlish choreography that silently admonishes a culture that too often denies Black women lightness, freedom and whimsy.

Over her career, Williams has used fashion to distinguish herself, to entertain the masses, to create community with people who look like her. She’s eagerly modeled Virgil Abloh tutus on the tennis court. She made grand entrances at the Met gala dressed in a slinky Versace gown or a feather bedecked cape courtesy of Gucci. She wore cornrows and a fascinator to a British royal wedding. She’s donned a full body catsuit on the French Open court – for medical reasons, she said. But never has a compression garment in a warrior’s shimmering black caused such a stir.

Despite her long tenure at the top of her game, Williams didn’t change the fashion economy. She didn’t roust a quorum of designers from their set ways. No single person could. But she nudged the industry along so that it has become a bit more welcoming, a tad more inclusive, a smidgen less restrictive in its archetypes. Mostly, Williams forced the industry to create a custom-made space just for her.

In a Vogue video, she reminisces about her fashion looks and dissects her style over the years, acknowledging her transformation from a teenager with braids and braces to a woman whose physique defied cultural expectations about who could hold pride of place in an industry that long ago set out a rigid beauty hierarchy. She called herself a fashion icon. And to the extent that she set a standard, a precedent, on the tennis court that is true. She extended the list of women of whom the industry takes note, and by extension, values. Williams forced the industry to see her precisely as she is rather than as some confection that it created. And even now, despite all the social media posting, cultural politicking and identity parsing, it remains a substantial acknowledgment to be truly seen by a trillion-dollar industry with tremendous cultural clout.

Williams didn’t come to this place easily. Like most of her victories, she accomplished her breakthroughs with determination and mental toughness. It took both to brush off the insipid cruelty about her hair, her skin colour, her body, her everything. This is not ancient history. This kind of verbal antagonism and psychological gamesmanship isn’t even history. It’s ever present, always in danger of bubbling up in the guise of a joke, an unwitting comment or an intentional insult because one should never underestimate the human capacity for meanness in the name of superiority.

The default physique of the beautiful people remains one that is long and lean. Everything else falls under the banner of inclusive. Williams is a one-off. She established a mutually beneficial relationship with fashion. She allowed it to participate in her success, to feed off her greatness. To revel in her wins and very few losses. In return, it let her into the club. On her own terms.

Her game is data. Her womanliness is a matter of personal conviction. Both are singular, enduring victories.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts.

This article was first published in the Washington Post