Woman of the Hour: Serena Williams

Serena Williams' journey to success goes beyond the typical rags-to-riches story. AP.

Serena Williams' journey to success goes beyond the typical rags-to-riches story. AP.

Serena Williams' journey to success goes beyond the typical rags-to-riches story. AP.
Serena Williams’ journey to success goes beyond the typical rags-to-riches story. AP.

By Erin Cabrey

Serena Williams is defying labels. In the new Mini USA campaign introduced during Sunday’s Super Bowl, the tennis phenom recalls the many unfair tags she’s been given throughout her career and urges women to define themselves on their own terms.

Changing the Game: On Sunday, when over 100 million Americans tuned into the Super Bowl, they were treated to a wider array of sports than just football. Tennis star Serena Williams headlined the Mini USA commercial, which also featured fellow athletes Abby Wambach and Tony Hawk. This TV spot reached beyond the traditional bounds of advertising to deliver an important social message to viewers. In the extended ad for the campaign, Serena lists the many labels commonly applied to her, including “too strong,” “too sexy,” “too focused on tennis” and “mean.” She states that overcoming these labels has been “really easy, because I define myself.” Though the main purpose is to squash labels typically applied to the Mini, the depth found in the campaign’s stories, such as Serena’s, portrays something much more important than the comedic or visually-grabbing fare usually featured during the football broadcast.

Serena’s discussion of labels, specifically in reference to her body, is something the 34 year-old has always been candid about. While many people have slammed her body for being overly muscular, Serena has refused to let these critiques bring her down or distract her from her goals. During her championship run at Wimbledon last summer, Serena told the New York Times, “I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it.”

As Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year and the first woman to hold the title in 32 years, Serena has used her standing as the country’s most successful female athlete to change the conversation about race and gender in sports and to become a role model for people across the world.

Serena’s Story: Serena’s athletic career has been unorthodox from the beginning. Instead of attending an elite tennis academy, she and her sister Venus were coached by their father in Compton, California. She turned pro in 1995, before even graduating high school, and quickly climbed her way to the top of the rankings. In 1999, she won the U.S. Open Championships, her first grand slam title, at the age of 17. From 2002 to 2003, Serena won all four grand slam tournaments in a row, completing what was known as “The Serena Slam,” a feat she achieved once again in 2015.

Serena continues to break records, make history and hold the title of one of the country’s most revered athletes. She has accumulated four Olympic gold medals and a total of 21 grand slam titles (placing third on the women’s all-time list), holding the record for the highest-earning female athlete in terms of prize money.

Last year was monumental for Serena’s career. In April, she returned to the Indian Wells Masters in California after a 14-year boycott of the tournament due to racial slurs she and Venus were subjected to in 2001. When she returned to the court, she was met with a rousing standing ovation that brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the stadium, as well as mine at home.

In July, she completed her second “Serena Slam” by winning Wimbledon. At the U.S. Open, Serena made history beyond the bounds of her own career. For the first time ever, the women’s final sold out before the men’s in anticipation of her completing the calendar slam. In addition, her quarterfinal match against Venus was the second-highest rated tennis match in ESPN history.

Advantage Serena: I attended the U.S. Open the day before the Williams vs. Williams match last year, and the sisters’ highly anticipated clash accounted for the majority of the buzz throughout the grounds. Spectators flooded the practice courts just to get a peek at Serena practicing, and I somehow managed to squeeze my way to the front of the pack, landing just feet away from the legend herself as she volleyed with her coach.

People desperate for a glimpse of her were actually tapping me on the shoulder and handing me their cameras to take pictures and videos. In a tennis center filled with every elite player hailing from every corner of the world, they were all drawn to Serena Williams, a woman from Compton, California, who practiced with her dog watching eagerly from the sidelines.

In a sea of Lacoste polo shirts, Serena Williams is wearing a Puma catsuit. “As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently,” she said. “But when I stepped onto the court, I could compete with anyone,” she told Time last year. As one of the most dominant forces in such an international game, she has flipped the script on a predominantly white institution, historically labeled a gentlemen’s sport.

She has shown that labels regarding race, gender and economic standing only matter if you let them. Serena Williams proves there are no boundaries that humility, integrity, bravery and a blistering serve cannot overcome, a sentiment that is guaranteed to inspire women long after she hangs up her racket.