Serena Williams won her 6th Wimbledon singles title yesterday, her 21st major championship and a victory earned amidst weird contemplation of her body size rather than her greatness, to say nothing of uglier responses. In the view of the Guardian’s Bryan Graham, “only Floyd Mayweather can offer an adequate, if unlikely, comparison to Serena’s sustained dominance and unapologetic blackness,” (“we are lucky to be living in the age of Serena Williams. Only in time will it become stupidly obvious, a cultural truism, a trajectory not unlike Ali’s path from enemy of the state and champion of the disenfranchised to universally acknowledged icon”) :
Both Mayweather and Williams turned professional in the mid-1990s and almost immediately soared to the top of unforgiving individual sports, where competitors exist in an unsparingly exposed state and all but the strongest of mind and body wash out. Both have gone about their work with a rugged individualism, supplementing divine natural gifts with untold hours of hard work and dedication behind the scenes. Both have passed the litmus test of the greatest champions, winning titles when they’re young and keeping them till they’re old: Mayweather, a world champion for more than half his adult life, while Williams has now won grand slam titles in her teens (one), twenties (12) and thirties (eight, a record).
And disproportionately broad segments of America, either privately or otherwise, want both to lose.
Yet the crucial differences between the two most dominant athletes of their generation show Serena’s getting a rawer deal. Mayweather is a serial batterer of women who actively embraces the role of race-baiting pantomime villain in the self-interest of souring the crowd to sweeten the gate, while Serena has done nothing even remotely criminal or even deliberately offensive. All she’s done is win and not be sorry for it. Those hell-bent enough to find character flaws could point to moments of iffy sportsmanship early in her career, especially after losses. Yet she’s made demonstrable strides in that area, which is even more admirable than if she’d been perfect all along because people generally don’t change. Today she’s the exemplar of grace and graciousness in victory or defeat.