Black History is full of stories of people overcoming obstacles to achieve greatness. It is as much an American narrative as it is an African American narrative. But many take for granted the Williams sisters’ story, particularly in light of their recent accomplishments. By now, most people are familiar with the narrative of their humble beginnings. Born into poverty in Saginaw, Michigan,Serena and Venus were the youngest of Richard Williams and Oracene Price’s (no relation) 5 children (Serena is the youngest by fifteen months.)
The family of seven moved to Compton, California shortly after Venus and Serenawere born. In 1991, they relocated to Florida to pursue tennis and, soon after, the young black girls with beads arrived on the scene taking the world by storm. They have dominated particularly top tier women’s tennis and carried the torch for American tennis for decades.
With her victory over Venus in Melbourne, Serena earned her 23rd grand slam title, surpassing Steffi Graff as the player with the most Open Area Singles major championships. In fact, there is no other Open Era player, man or woman, with as much success in Grand Slam Singles tennis. Venus currently shares the number 8 spot with Justine Henin at 7 major titles. Venus also holds the distinction of the most grand slam appearances, demonstrating the impact that she has had on the game over three decades. They have each won Olympic gold in Singles and, together, brought home gold in Sydney, Beijing, and London.
It is impossible to overstate the Williams sisters’ tennis accolades and accomplishments, which are already the stuff of sports legend. Serena’s name is squarely in the center of any discussion about the greatest female athlete of all time. What may perhaps be less recognized are the obstacles they have had to overcome off the court. In 2011, Serena was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism and a blood clot in her lungs that could have taken her life. She’d also had two surgeries on her right foot the prior year.
Rehabbing was rough and, given all she had already accomplished, no one would have blamed her if she retired. But Serena came back better than ever; it took less than two years for her to climb back to the World No. 1 ranking. In 2016, Serena first complained of a knee injury that her Coach said was keeping her from moving effectively, followed by a season ending shoulder injury that again, could have given her reason to end her comfortably tied with Graff in the record books. But, at 35, Serena was playing her best tennis and, according to her, enjoying tennis more than ever. Consequently, the results kept coming.
Venus’ career has also been threatened by major health challenges. In 2011, Venus Williams revealed that she was living with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that results in swelling and pain in the points. She says she was experiencing pain, fatigue and asthma symptoms prior to her diagnosis. There is no cure for Sjogren’s syndrome and managing symptoms to achieve a normal life is difficult for many.
However, Venus was not satisfied with her remarkable tennis accomplishments and the myriad other successful pursuits, including her fashion line and design career. Venus was not discouraged when she found the rigors of the tour and professional matches extremely difficult to withstand. In her first few comeback seasons, Venus struggled mightily and suffered a number of disappointing early round losses at majors that had most in the tennis world doubting her. As she continued to train and learn to manage her condition, Venus gradually made headway.
Even though she won the Olympic gold at the Beijing Summer games, Venus didn’t really return to great form until 2014, when she won her first singles title since the 2010 and made her way back into the World top 20. In many ways, her long road back has been culminated in her historic run to the Australian Open final in which she faced her sister this year. By any measure, 2017 is the year of the Williams Sisters.
Other obstacles they have faced off the court include: The 2003 murder of the Williams’ oldest sister and personal assistant in a drive-by shooting in Compton; The numerous insults to their race and gender. Even just this year at the Australian Open a commentary Doug Adler was suspended from broadcasts for comparing Venus to a gorilla. He claims he meant to say “guerrilla” but few bought it.
Venus Williams’ fight for equal pay for Women’s professional tennis; navigating their relationship and always supporting each other either when competing; and dealing with people’s never ending assumption that they are not good enough and they do not belong.
The perseverance and resilience that helped the Williams sisters rise from poverty in Compton also helped them overcome physical ailments and injuries that would have stopped many athletes in their tracks. This victory was the sweetest because so many people have written them off! Now what are you going to do with the setbacks you’ve experienced? Retire or fight for the comeback of your life!