I want to say that the first time that I heard Serena Williams called a man was middle school. I can’t say that with absolute certainty as middle school is generally universally awful and grades six through eight are a haze of mob mentality and chocolate milk but nonetheless, it wasn’t until my teen years that I truly understood that people held a great amount of resentment for Serena Williams. Her muscular frame defied the expectations or demands of femininity at the time, even amongst Black male communities, who yes, liked their women thick, but only if the thick was “soft” looking like Esther Baxter. Somehow, Serena’s fit frame threatened that clear demarcation between strength and beauty that is supposed to exist between genders. Almost two decades later, there are plenty of men and women across racial lines who still possess this opinion: a perfunctory search of “Serena” and “ugly” or “Serena” and “man” will generate a terrifying number of results.
This obsession with minimizing and masculinizing Serena isn’t just limited to a beauty standard, however. After being overshadowed by her big sister Venus earlier in her career, Serena burst onto the scene with two huge tools in her arsenal — a strong baseline forehand and a dominant serve. Which were not only impressive for their speed — at around 129 mph Serena has the 3rd fastest recorded serve in women’s open era history — but her consistent ability to crack 115 mph with precision in ball placement. While women’s tennis had already been trending towards a more power-era sport with competitors such as Monica Seles disrupting the status quo, Serena’s serve set a new standard, requiring her competitors to train towards consistently returning speeds that were more commonly seen in men’s tennis. With the new benchmark being set and Serena’s serve taking her through a dominant run in the early aughts, the never-ending question started to rear its ugly head amongst professional tennis critics: could Serena be strong enough to compete with men? Does her physique provide her an unfair advantage over women?
The answer to both of these is obviously no (unless you count mixed doubles, which is a whole other ball game). However, the fact that this discussion has loomed so large over her career through a layered combination of misogyny and racism is what makes it so especially insulting that the same discussion is used to invalidate her legendary accomplishments. Evidenced most recently by John McEnroe, who stated that he couldn’t call her the best tennis player ever without a gender qualifier “if she played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world.”
While it’s largely irrelevant, it should be noted that it’s unlikely that she would be ranked as low as 700. Regardless, what John and others like him refuse to understand about removing the qualifier is that it has nothing to do with whether or not Serena can compete at a high level with men. Serena Jameka Williams from Compton, California is one of, if not the best tennis player of all time because of her dominance and rebranding of the sport in spite of an elitist community that resisted accepting her as one of their own. She went from being ostracized as a villain the United States Tennis Association to being the face of it, selling out arenas in record time in a sport that was declining in attendance. Her and her sister are singlehandedly responsible in the resurgence of tennis interest in this country, both from viewership to actual participation of young Black women in the amateur circuit at a young age. And she did it all while wearing a cat suit, crip walking, and appearing in Beyonce videos.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate just how overscrutinized Serena’s rise to the top was. The conversations around her frame have continued well into the latter phase of career. In 2015, the New York Times bifurcated her “large biceps and mold-breaking muscular frame” with that of her competitors, who “chose not to” pursue the same frame because they “want to be a woman” or don't want to “feel unfeminine.” In 2009, sentient pile of black mold Jason Whitlock infamously associated Serena’s then-struggles to return to the top with her size, claiming that if Serena could just focus on becoming leaner, she would become the greatest ever – which is quite the criticism from someone who can only claim to be singlehandedly the greatest in keeping the pork pie hat industry alive. And now, in 2017, the same frame that has somehow robbed her of her claim to femininity, that was consistently and unfoundedly associated with aggression and a brutishness that is unbecoming of a female tennis star, is being evaluated as unfit to stand in a man’s apparently dutiful place in history. This is after 23 Grand Slams across multiple generations of tennis peers, after being inaccurately reduced to a passing fad by both her contemporaries, and after redefining the entire approach to women’s tennis in such an unprecedented manner that a tennis star the likes of Maria Sharapova – who actually has been suspended for taking banned substances, as opposed to Serena, despite near-constant accusations to the contrary - can be reduced to near-insignificance. Roger Federer can’t make that same claim, much less McEnroe.
Greatness has to do with more than athletic ability - Andy Roddick, with a serve of 150 mph is on no one’s greatest list (except for maybe one of “greatest finessers of multimillion endorsement deals while barely winning shit” with Anna Kournikova). Greatness is about impact, and the uncontested fact remains that in the last 25 years, Serena Williams has impacted the sport more than any of her peers, male or female. Serena can have her baby tomorrow and never pick up a racket again while exchanging cutesy Reddits with her fiancé on playdates with the Carter-Knowles twins and that significance of her multi-decade trajectory will remain an indelible constant. There’s no arbitrary ranking that McEnroe can make that will ever take that away, no matter how often he uses the gender qualifier to minimize it.