Serena Williams beat Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final this past weekend to tie Steffi Graf’s Open-era women’s singles record of 22 major titles, and the best player in the world shows no signs of slowing down. But Serena is not just a tennis player — she is also a human being who has the star power to be a role model for society. And the 34-year-old has proven this to be the case time and time again, despite being under perhaps more pressure than any tennis player in history to perform every time she steps on the court.
Serena won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open — almost 17 years ago — when she beat five current or eventual major champions at the age of 17. While in the CBS studio after beating World Number One, Martina Hingis, in the final, Williams got a call from then-President Bill Clinton — that was before she was the icon under the scrutiny of the public eye that she is today. Although her results being watched as much as any tennis player’s in what has been the nearly two decades since, Williams has taken public stands on social issues when many would stick to just playing their sport.
“In London I have to wake up to this,” Serena tweeted on Thursday morning after her semifinal win, referencing the event in which a Minnesota police officer shot Philando Castile, leading to the 32-year-old’s death. “He was black. Shot 4 times? When will something be done- no REALLY be done?!?!”
For almost a year, there has been one question hovering above Serena’s head — could she finally win her 22nd major and tie Steffi Graf? Roberta Vinci shocked Williams in the U.S. Open semifinal last September, nixing Serena’s shot at a Grand Slam — winning all four major titles in one season — and tying the record. Then Kerber beat her in the Australian Open final in January.
While the headlines focused on her tennis chase, Serena guest-edited the November issue of Wired in which there was a focus on race, gender and equality. In an article that she wrote, Williams discussed a couple of schools that her foundation partnered with Build Africa Schools to build in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
“Sometimes in Africa they send only the boys to school,” Williams wrote. “So we had a strict rule that our schools had to be at least 40 percent girls. It was impossible to get 50-50 boys to girls, and we really had to fight for 60-40. But we got it.”
Serena was again under pressure to get back in the win column at the Grand Slams following her loss to Kerber in January, but she did not disappear outside of the tennis court. Instead, her foundation — the Serena Williams Fund — partnered with Helping Hands Jamaica to build the Salt Marsh Primary School in Jamaica. She was on-site herself in February — construction goggles on — painting doors and hammering nails to finish the project. Williams was not sulking over her loss on the court, but making a difference.
But these have not been one-offs. When the worst mass shooting in United States history occurred in June, Serena immediately took to social media.
“We are all human,” Williams wrote in a post on Instagram. “This senseless act of violence is unnecessary. So many things really need to start being addressed.”
Members of the tennis community have made awful comments as well, to which Serena has not hesitated to respond. In 2014, then-Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev referred to Serena and sister Venus as “the Williams brothers.”
“I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time,” Williams told the New York Times. “For someone with his power, it’s really unacceptable to make such bullying remarks.”
Earlier this year, Raymond Moore, then CEO of Indian Wells, said that female players “ride on the coattails of the men,” and that “if I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.”
Serena responded the same day that Moore — who would later resign from his post — made those comments. Williams disputed their accuracy and pointed out that “if I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number.”
“You know, there’s only one way to interpret that,” Williams said, directly addressing Moore’s comments. “Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not — we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”
Last summer, author J.K. Rowling jumped to Serena’s defense when a Twitter commenter claimed that she found success on the tennis court because Williams “is built like a man.”
“When someone’s harassing someone else, speak up!” Williams wrote in her Wired piece. “J.K. Rowling spoke up for me this summer, and it was an amazing feeling — I thought, well, ‘I can speak up too.'”
When she appeared alongside Beyoncé in the singer’s “Sorry” video, dancing and twerking, she later explained she wasn’t sorry for anything. “‘I am not sorry about who I am,” she said. “I really connected with those lyrics and felt good about that.”
Sure, Serena has not been the only athlete to comment on social issues. But there is far more to Williams’ world than tennis—win or lose. A 22nd Grand Slam title was important and her on-court career will inspire countless children and fans in general to play the sport, but she has consistently painted the line with winners by proving another point — it is not all about tennis. For that, she will always be a champion.