Superstars on Serena Williams: Four sports legends describe her impact
What she means to hoops great Sheryl Swoopes, softball icon Lisa Fernandez, champion coach Dawn Staley and Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee
She’s friends with the Duchess of Sussex, dances in music videos alongside Queen Bey, and when she takes to the tennis court to play that sport that helped her reach royalty status, a legion of fans tunes in: When Serena Williams played in the finals of the 2018 US Open, it was watched by 3 million viewers, 50% more viewers than the men’s final.
Many of those fans are relatively new to the sport, demonstrating a devotion to a woman whose journey took her from tennis courts in Compton, California, to becoming one of the world’s most dominant athletes.
Quite a few of those admirers are her athletic peers, athletes who — at the height of their careers — were considered to be among the best in their respective sports.
Here are four female athletes — luminaries — sharing their admiration for Williams.
Legend to legend.
‘WHEN SERENA IS PLAYING, I’M ON THE COURT PLAYING TENNIS RIGHT ALONGSIDE HER.’
Legend credentials: Four-time WNBA champion; six-time WNBA All-Star; three-time WNBA MVP; three-time Olympic gold medalist; NCAA champion; Naismith College Player of the Year; Basketball Hall of Fame.
If you’re attempting to reach Sheryl Swoopes at the moment Williams walks onto center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday, don’t bother. She’ll be in the midst of a routine that takes place anytime Williams plays a major tennis match.
“Everyone knows — my husband knows — that when Serena plays, my phone’s off and don’t talk to me,” Swoopes said. “In that moment when Serena is playing, I’m on the court playing tennis right alongside her.”
Swoopes is an iconic figure in women’s basketball: the WNBA’s first megastar was ranked in the top 10 of the greatest WNBA players of all time and dubbed the female Michael Jordan. Yet, Swoopes said, “if basketball hadn’t been my thing and I could go back and redo things, I would follow in Venus and Serena’s footsteps.”
That Swoopes appreciates the obvious gifts of Williams is a given. “She’s an incredible athlete,” Swoopes said. “… who became the best in a sport that had been dominated by white women.”
In Swoopes’ mind, it’s the intangibles Williams possesses that set her apart from other female athletes.
“I love her story, I love where she comes from, I love how her dad was a part of her life,” Swoopes said. “And I love what she represented for Black women. She wasn’t your typical tennis player dominating [or] a size 2. She’s a full-figure[d], gorgeous, strong Black woman. I love how, even when people talk about her size and her outfits, she embraces that.”
Which gained Williams a ton of followers.
“As she dominated she seemed to say, ‘this is who I am, and whether you take it or leave it, I’m good,’ ” Swoopes added. “I love the fact that at this point in her career she just said, ‘screw the haters, I’m going to do me and I’m going to be me for myself and for Olympia.’ ”
Swoopes began her WNBA career in 1997 with the Houston Comets, three years after Venus Williams turned professional and two years after Serena Williams turned pro. With all the attention the Compton sisters were generating, she instantly became a fan.
“I pulled hard for them at the start, and felt an instant connection,” Swoopes said. “Their dad was their coach, they were winning and I felt they were playing for me.
“Serena was special on her way to dominating. She sent a message to every little Black girl out there: ‘you set your mind to it, you can accomplish whatever you want.’ ”
Now the connection comes with being a mother: Swoopes, who has one son, has enjoyed watching the journey of Williams and her daughter Olympia.
“My son’s 25 now, and everything I do is to make sure he has all that he needs,” Swoopes said. “I see that with Serena, who’s a great mom. The only advice I could give her in that area is to keep doing what you’re doing.”
While Swoopes is iconic in basketball circles, she places Williams in rarefied air.
“I look at celebrities — musical celebrities — and she’s right up there with Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston, who is my favorite female artist,” Swoopes said. “I miss Whitney every day, and music won’t ever be the same without her. Just like tennis will never be the same without Serena.”
Which is why Swoopes expects to have some tissue beside her when Williams plays what is likely to be her final match.
“I’m going to laugh, I’m going to cry, I’m going to be angry because this is the end,” Swoopes. “My message to Serena: I need you to win.”
‘SHE OPENED UP A WHOLE NEW AVENUE FOR ATHLETES TO REALIZE THAT THEY CAN.’
Legend credentials: Two-time NCAA champion; four-time All-American; three-time Olympic gold medalist; USA Softball Hall of Fame; Honda-Broderick Cup winner for nation’s most outstanding collegiate female athlete (1993); Greatest College Softball Player of All Time.
She’s a product of Long Beach, California, so Lisa Fernandez is very familiar with the tennis courts in the Compton/Long Beach area where Williams learned to play. If her mother had it her way, perhaps Fernandez would have emerged as a tennis star.
“I’m from an avid tennis family, and my mom would take me out there to hit, but I had a hard time keeping the ball on the court,” Fernandez said. “I kept hitting the darn thing over the fence, so we made the transition from tennis to softball.”
That transition served Fernandez well as she emerged as one of the biggest stars in softball history as a pitcher who brought some serious heat, a dominant force on the mound who won two national championships at UCLA and three Olympic gold medals. The NCAA recognized her as the greatest softball player of all time in 2017.
Game recognizes game. And Fernandez, who went from a decorated playing career to her current position as the associate head coach at UCLA, has long recognized the greatest of her fellow Southern California products.
“I know her roots,” Fernandez said. “And there’s tons of pride that the people here have for her. She represents our area well.”
Reaching the pinnacle of their respective sport is, for many athletes, fleeting. What Fernandez admires about Williams was her extended stay at the top of her game.
“It’s hard to be great for a season, for two seasons, and she was able to do it for the life span of her career,” Fernandez said. “Hers is a tremendous story not only for what she was able to achieve as an athlete, but for also being a role model for the world in terms of the strength of women.”
As a mother of two, Fernandez appreciates how Williams was able to play at a high level while pregnant (she was two months pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open) and after having a baby (Williams was the runner-up in four majors in 2018 and 2019).
“You go through a process when you carry a child and it takes a toll on you physically and then there’s this added emotional connection of bringing someone in this world,” Fernandez said. “When I played, I was about ball all the time, and waking up at 6 in the morning wasn’t a big deal.
“After I had my son, all of a sudden I wanted to snuggle a little bit longer, and all of a sudden something else comes first besides what you’ve been passionate about all of your life,” she added. “I understand what Serena is going through, because it changes your perspective and, while you can bring your baby to as many practices and games as you can, there are times that child needs you and you have to make a choice.”
Fernandez has long appreciated Williams’ ability to destroy stereotypes when it comes to female athletes.
“There’s a lot of focus on body image, and she was so strong and so powerful, yet so graceful,” Fernandez said. “You realize in sports that you’ve got to have a picture, an image, a belief that you can. For her to show the world that someone of color can do what she did? She opened up a whole new avenue for athletes to realize that they can.”
An entire generation of tennis players have been inspired by Williams, which was evident in the comments made by up-and-coming star Coco Gauff during her news conference on Friday entering the US Open about how much she looked up to Williams.
Just like an entire generation of softball pitchers was inspired by Fernandez, which means both legends did their job.
“When you’re blessed with gifts, you have to be able to pass the baton and you hope the future grabs it and does something even better,” Fernandez said. “It was handed from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova to Chris Evert Lloyd. Serena got it, broke the door down and has now transcended tennis.
“There’s a responsibility for the next generation to advance the game, become greater, become more athletic, become more competitive to a point where an 8-year-old can now visualize what she can become. If there’s a little 8-year-old someone in the world who literally wants to be better than Serena, that’s the biggest compliment Serena could ever receive.”
‘IT’S A LOSS NOT ONLY FOR THE TENNIS WORLD, BUT FOR OUR CULTURE.’
Legend credentials: Two-time NCAA champion (coach); two-time Naismith Coach of the Year; six-time WNBA All-Star; two-time Naismith College Player of the Year; three-time Olympic gold medalist; Basketball Hall of Fame.
While it’s a movie that premiered nearly a year ago, it was only recently that Dawn Staley got around to watching King Richard, the movie that detailed the emergence of the Williams sisters as dominant forces in tennis.
“It was quite incredible, because they were able to succeed in the only way their father taught them, which was out of the norm,” Staley said. “They were comfortable in their skin. They were OK with grunting. They were OK dominating in a space that was different, and doing it while being their authentic selves.”
To rise from the glass-strewn tennis courts in Compton and South Florida to dominate a country club sport with 23 Grand Slams titles, including 15 from her US Open win in 2008 to her last major win at the 2017 Australian Open, is the reason Staley believes Williams’ status in professional tennis will never be matched.
“We’ve seen it through the years: basketball players can be replaced, football players can be replaced,” Staley said. “Serena? She’s not ever being replaced. Her leaving creates a big, huge void.”
Staley didn’t become a tennis fan because of Williams. “I’ve always been a tennis fan; I was a big fan of Ivan Lendl back in the day,” Staley said.
But the way the Williams sisters shook up the tennis scene — beads, athleticism, court intelligence and a refuse-to-bend-or-break mentality — provided a strong gravitational pull.
“A sport that’s not inviting, that’s exclusive, it takes a whole lot to break into that,” Staley said. “Michael Jordan became a legend in basketball, and we’re a little bit more welcome in that space. Serena became a legend in tennis, on a road less traveled.”
Not only did Williams become a legend on the court, she built a lucrative career off the court which, Staley believes, is inspirational to young Black women.
“You can look at Serena and see that Black women can be product pushers in this space,” Staley said. “It’s a lesson for the next generation of Black women to see how she did it.”
Williams’ recent announcement that she’s walking away from the game had Staley reflecting on the end of her career.
“I played one more year than I really was supposed to play,” Staley said. “Once you reach that point where you’re just tired, your body’s weary, it becomes difficult to get at peak condition to compete, that doesn’t sit well.”
The fact that Williams made a decision to leave now has Staley hoping for a miraculous finish in what’s likely her last Grand Slam.
“I know she wants one more slam, and I pray to God she gets it,” Staley said. “It would be great to see her ride off into the sunset as champion in her last tournament.”
Staley can see the influence of Williams on the next generation of tennis stars.
“Players like Coco Gauff, they are who they are because of Serena and Venus,” Staley said. “But it won’t ever be the same. We’re losing an incredible legend. It’s a loss not only for the tennis world, but for our culture.”
‘AS THEY GOT INTO THEIR CAREER, I WATCHED THEM PLAY EVERY CHANCE I GOT.’
Legend credentials: Three-time Olympic gold medalist; four-time world champion; two-time winner of the Honda-Broderick Award for the nation’s best female collegiate track and field competitor; Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century; one of the 15 greatest players in UCLA basketball history.
While training in South Florida in the early 1990s, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her husband/coach, Bob Kersee, were summoned to a meeting with a father who wanted to introduce the couple to his two daughters. While it’s a story that’s been documented and repeated thousands of times, Joyner-Kersee vividly remembers the confidence Richard Williams had in two girls who had yet to reach their teenage years.
“He told us they were going to be superstars and he said that Serena would eventually surpass her sister, Venus,” Joyner-Kersee recalled of that day in Sarasota. “They were bubbly young girls, but you could also see that physically they were extremely gifted. I never doubted Richard when he said they were going to be great.”
Joyner-Kersee, at the time of that meeting, was already a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and training for the heptathlon in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where she won a third gold medal. She calls it a privilege to have met two sisters who would dominate their sport, with one of them earning the unofficial title of the greatest tennis player.
“As they got into their career, I watched them play every chance I got,” Joyner-Kersee said. “What I admire most about Serena over the course of her career is her tenacity and the inner strength she demonstrated to compete at the highest level. She faced a lot of obstacles, but each match she went out and showed that she was the baddest in the game.”
And Joyner-Kersee appreciates how Williams has changed the game in terms of attracting deals from major companies, with her tennis success helping her earn the 10th spot among athlete endorsers.
“For years I was considered to be the very best, and barely had endorsements,” Joyner-Kersee said. “You look from Althea Gibson in her era to where Serena and Venus are today being in a position to have great reach.”
Reach that few could have predicted when Joyner-Kersee met the Williams sisters more than 30 years ago.
“Richard and his wife had a game plan,” Joyner-Kersee said. “Seeing what they have accomplished is very inspirational for any girl who wants to play tennis.”