Serena Williams Proves as Big for Black Athletes as Being No. 1Eben Novy-Williams
Sachia Vickery was 5 1/2 when she declared she would be the next Serena Williams. Now 18, she credits the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion with much more than just tennis inspiration.
Vickery is part of an unprecedented group of young black American women rising in the professional tennis ranks and credits the off-court efforts by Williams, 31, and her older sister Venus. Sociologists and marketing analysts say the sisters’ biggest effect financially has been filling the pockets of all female players rather than their own endorsement profile while helping their sport to grow in minority communities.
The first black American to win a major title since Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, Serena Williams’s record approaches the sport’s all-time greats, ranking sixth on the career list of Grand Slam singles champions with $50 million in prize winnings, a record for a female athlete. Her legacy may loom even larger.
“Everyone has similar stories about her impact,” Vickery said in a telephone interview. “She definitely changed everything completely. All the adversity that she and Venus had to go through really made it easier for us now.”
A muscular woman who wears her passion and aggression on the sleeves of her tennis outfits, Williams has also battled to overcome prevailing standards of beauty and femininity. Harry Edwards, author of “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” considers her one of the three most transcendent athletes of his lifetime, alongside 11-time National Basketball Association champion Bill Russell and football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.
“Serena had to deal with that issue because she does not fit the standard image of what advertisers and marketers like to see and promote,” Edwards, 70, said in a telephone interview. “She has not faltered in her pride in herself, her sense of self, and that means so much to young minority girls and women all over.”
Williams’s fifth U.S. Open title in New York this month was her 17th Grand Slam singles win, fourth most in the Open era of professional tennis that began in 1968. The top-ranked player on the WTA tour, she’s 67-4 this year with nine tournament titles. She also has four Olympic gold medals and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles playing with her sister.
“I never really want to focus on the numbers,” Williams said at the U.S. Open earlier this month. “I started playing tennis not to be the greatest but just because I had a racket and a dream.”
Williams’s dream has transferred to many who grew up watching her. This year’s U.S. Open main draw featured four black American women under 21 years old -- No. 13-ranked Sloane Stephens, No. 43 Madison Keys, No. 182 Vickery and No. 188 Victoria Duval. The U.S. Tennis Association said it believed that was unmatched, though it doesn’t keep exact figures on racial breakdown of fields. The list could soon include 15-year-old Tornado Alicia Black, runner-up in the Junior girls draw.
Paula Liverpool, Vickery’s mother, bought a paddle racket from a local dollar store shortly after her daughter’s bold declaration 13 years ago. Two days later, the future national junior champion broke her grandmother’s bedroom window while trying to recreate Williams’s powerful strokes.
Liverpool said her daughter has always been muscular in the Williams mold and that she was comfortable with the choice of a role model because of Williams’s physical prowess and on-court tenacity. She said the growth of the game in black communities is “99 percent” a result of the Williams sisters.
“When you can relate to someone that you can see as yourself physically, it puts you in a position where you feel like you are capable of accomplishing exactly what she’s accomplished,” Liverpool said in a telephone interview.
Williams made $12 million in endorsements from June 2012 to June 2013, according to Forbes Magazine’s annual rankings. Among female athletes worldwide, she trails only Maria Sharapova of Russia ($23 million) and Li Na of China ($15 million). Williams’s total is just $1 million more than Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, who has never won a Grand Slam title and hasn’t reached a major semifinal in more than two years.
Williams was unavailable to comment for this story, Jill Smoller, her agent, said in an e-mail.
Jim Andrews, senior vice president for content strategy at the sponsorship consultant IEG, said Williams’s appearance has probably played a part in limiting some corporate links. Williams endorses Nike Inc., Wilson Sporting Goods Co., PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade brand and OPI Products Inc. She also has equity deals with HSN Inc., Sleep Sheets, Mission Athletecare and football’s Miami Dolphins, according to Forbes.
“Corporate sponsors have traditionally looked for female athletes who fit that traditional standard of beauty, which oftentimes is white, blonde women,” Andrews said in a telephone interview.
Serena Williams is recognized by 91 percent of U.S. consumers, more than Venus (89 percent) and the most recognizable active men’s player, Roger Federer (61 percent), according to the Marketing Arm, which measures celebrity endorsement potential. Scott Becher, managing director of Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Florida-based Zimmerman Advertising, said the Williams sisters and Federer, also a 17-time Grand Slam singles champion, were the only active tennis players to transcend the sport’s limited popularity in the U.S. market.
“The Williams sisters’ legacy may be more for growing the game than their performance when playing,” Becher said in a telephone interview. “They made tennis accessible, not to mention their interests in design and fashion. They have been influencers and their reach is much broader than sport.”
Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 1999, joining Gibson and Ashe as the only black Americans to win one of the sport’s major tournaments. Venus Williams, who is 15 months older than her sister, became the fourth at Wimbledon the following year.
Gibson won the French Open in 1956, followed by consecutive Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 1957 and 1958. Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. They were involved in the civil rights’ struggles in the 1950s and 1960s, and Ashe helped form the professional men’s ATP Tour in 1972. Gibson died in 2003, and Ashe in 1993.
Both Williams sisters lobbied early in their careers for gender-equal pay at the Grand Slams, picking up a fight launched in the ’60s by Billie Jean King, who helped found both the WTA tour and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The French Open in 2006 became the third Grand Slam to offer equal pay, and after extensive lobbying by Venus Williams, Wimbledon followed in 2007. Pay for the women’s champion at the grass court major has increased 229 percent to $2.57 million since Serena Williams won her first Wimbledon title in 2002. This year the 10 highest-paid tennis players in the world were evenly split between men and women, according to Forbes.
“The fact that it’s really the only sport where women have parity in terms of income is a result of people like Serena standing up vocally and being willing to take action,” Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, said in a telephone interview. “Serena is a lot like Billie Jean King. She was not only a great tennis player and changed the way people view tennis, but she was an outstanding leader in terms of women’s issues.”
The sisters also have taken money out of their own pockets as a matter of racial principle. They have refused to play the high-tier tournament at Indian Wells, California, since 2001, when Venus and their father, Richard Williams, said they were the target of racial taunts from members of the crowd.
“It’s become a mandatory tournament on the tour, meaning that the WTA can fine a player if she doesn’t attend,” Serena wrote in her 2009 autobiography, “On the Line.” But I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars, I will not play there again.”
Serena Williams isn’t without critics. In the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals, she launched an expletive-laced tirade while threatening to harm a line judge after a foot-fault call. The outburst cost her the match against eventual champion Kim Clijsters and she was fined $175,000 and placed on two years’ probation. Two years later, after she was docked a point for yelling in mid-rally, Williams called another U.S. Open official “out of control” and “unattractive inside.”
Edwards helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which led to the Black Power salute by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. He said that through Williams’s occasional on-court outbursts, he never worried that she’d lost her way.
“Given the extraordinary challenges in the areas of race, gender and style that she has had to confront, the wonder for me is not that she goes off from time to time, it’s that she doesn’t go off more often,” Edwards said.
The Williams sisters started playing tennis in Compton, a city in Southern California with a median household income of $43,311, 30 percent less than the state’s average, according to the Census Bureau. Compton’s violence is often glorified in rap music, and Serena’s half-sister Yetunde Price was killed in a gang shooting in 2003.
Aja Brown, at 31 the youngest mayor in Compton’s history, said she drew inspiration from the Williams’s early stardom. Brown said she intends to contact the sisters to see if they would be willing to help with the city’s new health- and exercise-based initiatives.
“Serena Williams is definitely a mark of accomplishment for the city and role model for young women in the community,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “It really shows how much hard work and determination can change your circumstances.”
Lapchick said Williams’s success in inspiring a new generation of young black professional tennis players is a contrast to golf’s Tiger Woods, another minority-group member who rose to No. 1 in a predominantly white sport. There are no other black players competing full time on the PGA Tour, the world’s richest golf circuit.
Woods, who identifies himself as “Cablinasian,” a mix of his white, black, American Indian and Asian heritage, said last week that golf is growing within minority communities through foundations and youth programs such as The First Tee. He also said the use of motorized golf carts limited caddy programs, which traditionally brings minorities to the sport.
“What Serena and Venus have done in their sport has been second to none, the way they’ve grown their sport,” Woods, 37, said prior to the PGA Tour Championship in Atlanta. “And not only shown the way they can play, but just the pure athleticism in which you can play and the power you can play at.”
In July, Vickery made her World Team Tennis debut in Washington. With Serena Williams sitting courtside, she double faulted five times and won just three points in a 5-0 loss to former Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis.
Liverpool said it was the first time she saw her daughter succumb to stage fright. Another surprise followed.
“Serena came up to her and hugged her and Sachia burst into tears, which is a rare occurrence in her life,” Liverpool said. “I was so humbled and grateful for the mentorship Serena showed at that particular event in my daughter’s life. The humility Serena has within her makes her unique from a lot of big players who get ahead of themselves.”