Sports Illustrated has selected Serena Williams as its latest sportsperson of the year, honoring the young woman for her superb dyed-in-the-wool physical ability and her 120 mph serve. Williams is the first solo woman to appear on the cover of the Sportsperson issue in more than two decades.
Sports Illustrated showed deference by naming Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. The honor is truly deserved, as the professional tennis player is ranked No. 1 in women’s singles tennis. Also, the Women’s Tennis Association has ranked her No. 1 in the world on six separate occasions. She remains the reigning champ of Wimbledon, the French Open, the Australian Open and the Olympic women’s singles and doubles. Moreover, she holds more major singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles than any other active male or female tennis player, and she’s third on the list of all-time Grand Slam singles titles.
At 34-years-old, the Saginaw, Michigan-born professional tennis player is arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history. Nonetheless, Sports Illustrated’s decision to select Williams kicked up a bit of dirt and stirred up some controversy.
For one, the Triple Crown winner and thoroughbred racehorse American Pharoah was actually voted the top choice for Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated readers. Despite William’s winning career and continued dominance over the game, she was ranked tenth out of 11 on the readers’ poll, losing out to the first horse to win the “Grand Slam” of American horse racing. However, the polling, nor the severe reaction and debate, fazed Williams. In fact, when she received her award from Sport Illustrated on Monday, December 14, she made an offhand joke about the horse debate, saying, “I’ve had my shares of ups and downs. I’ve had many struggles. I’ve had blood clots in both my lungs at the same time, and I’ve lived through tragedies and controversies and … horses. I had to say it! Basically, I’ve been through it all … um, I’m also a part-time comedian.”
Twitter also came alive with fury due the publication’s decision to present Williams on the cover wearing just a pair of high heels and an all-black and laced leotard. The creative direction was problematic for many, particularly those who recognize that Williams is the first solo woman to appear on the cover of the coveted Sports Illustrated issue since Mary Decker, track-and-field star, appeared on the cover in 1983. Conversely, others considered her appearance on the cover fitting. They saw her outfit as powerful, and her positioning on the gold and carved throne as fierce…particularly because many recognize her as the queen of the court. Sport Illustrated later reveal that the cover was Serena’s idea, a decision based on a need to express strength and femininity.
The image is striking and captures her presence as a strong woman, but the cover lacks mention of the sport that landed her the cover. There are no references to tennis or sports, there’s simply an an abundant serving of sex appeal. There’s no need insist that Williams dilute her sexual confidence or repress ownership of her body because Williams is a strong and beautiful woman with charm, confidence and skill. Nonetheless, it would have been more impressive and powerful to include the elements of tennis; particularly because she is a black woman in a sport that isn’t known for its African American representation, as she once stated in an essay she penned for WIRED magazine.
Nonetheless, the Sport Illustrated feature article on the athlete frames William’s life, work and legacy beautifully. The writer not only lists her battles and wins, but he captures that success while acknowledging personal difficulties and injuries she’s overcome. Also, the piece captures life on and off of the court with ease, mentioning Williams’ impressive movements with a racket and early life encounters with racism that promised to shake her. The lengthy piece chronicles resistance, growth, philanthropy, reflection, loss and triumph.