There’s a Serena Williams story I heard once, and I’ve spent the morning trying to fact check it. I can’t find out for sure if it’s true or not, if it really did happen. Maybe this is bad journalism, but I’m going to share it anyways. Because even if it isn’t true, the fact that it’s believable at all says a lot, and I can’t think of a better anecdote to explain Serena than this one.

The story goes that Serena had just lost a big match at Wimbledon. This was long after she had already proved herself as one of the greatest athletes in history. She was fuming about the loss, she thought she should have won, and she cursing and screaming when she caught her reflection in the mirror. She stopped her yelling and exhaled. “I might have lost,” she said to herself. “But I’m still Serena fucking Williams.”

In the first essay I did for 10EYS, I wrote about Roger Federer and how we spent this decade watching dominant athletes become an even greater version of themselves by finding a subtler, more introspective confidence. The more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that Williams belongs in that group. The last decade has seen her battle injuries, a near death experience, and an ugly confrontation at the U.S. Open, but unlike Federer or even Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, or Lionel Messi, her confidence is anything but quiet. Those athletes have found a way to use their experiences to outsmart opponents; Serena still tries to pulverize them. Where other athletes have found new ways to win, Serena simply refuses to lose.

Take Wimbledon 2015 as an example. She was facing Heather Watson, the top women’s player in England at the time, and the Brit was ahead 3-0 in the final set when the hometown crowd started to roar with approval. Williams shook her index finger at the crowd and announced, “Don’t try me.” Serena won 7-5—and then she won the whole tournament.

There’s still a long way to go, but this decade brought women’s athletics so much closer to something like equality than it’s ever been before. It’s impossible to tell that story of progress without Serena, without her confidence, and without her rejection of being anything other than herself. Just like she refused to lose, she refused to be considered anything less than one of the greatest athletes of all time. Along the way, she gave other women room to do the same.; you can draw a straight line from Serena’s finger wagging at Wimbledon to Megan Rapinoe’s post-goal salute at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, to the WNBA’s recent activism, and to Serena’s latest foil on the tennis court, Naomi Osaka.

Speaking of Osaka, I’m reminded of something Serena wrote in the aftermath of the 2018 U.S. Open. She penned an essay for Harper’s Bazaar, and in it, she offered an apology for ranting against the referees and was gracious in her praise for Osaka. But she also offered this insight, one that comes close to explaining what Serena meant when she caught that glimpse of herself in the locker room mirror after a tough loss and had to remind herself who she was looking at: “I felt defeated and disrespected by a sport that I love,” she said, “one that I had dedicated my life to and that my family truly changed, not because we were welcomed, but because we wouldn’t stop winning.”

That’s how Serena Williams changed the world. Not because she was given permission. Not because she said the right thing or dressed the right way. Because she wouldn’t stop winning. And she never let us forget the woman behind the dominance.

The 10th Annual Joey Awards

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