Serena Williams has cemented herself as one of the world’s greatest athletes — and that’s no easy task for an African-American woman in the predominately white sport of tennis.
The 35-year-old tennis great sat down with rapper Common to discuss her rise to dominance in the sport in an ESPN special called The Undefeated in Depth: Serena with Common. She opened up about her journey, including her early days with sister Venus Williams, and the struggles she’s experienced along the way. The interview will also be featured in print in ESPN The Magazine’s “Anything’s Possible” issue on newsstands Friday.
“Growing up and playing these tournaments when I was younger … I didn’t really see a lot of people that was my color — that was Black. So I think I just got used to it,” she said.
“Then when you go to, like, to Russia or a lot of these countries — you just really kind of stick out. But I like to stick out.”
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She also recalled her early days, and the criticism she endured alongside her sister, noting that she avoids reading articles about herself.
“I definitely was scrutinized because I was confident. I was Black and I was confident. And I am Black. I am confident. But I would say that I feel like I could be number one, ” she said, adding that critics told her to not say such things.
“Why shouldn’t I say that? If I don’t think I’m gonna be the best, why do I play? … I believed that I was gonna be number one.”
She praised African-American tennis greats like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, and noted that she and Venus dominating the field so young — playing professionally in their teenage years — was a “problem” for naysayers.
“We literally took the globe and shook it, me and Venus. Because we came from Compton. We came from nothing. In tennis you kind of have to have something,” Williams said.
“We came and we conquered. I shouldn’t have to apologize for saying and believing that I could be the best.”
The athlete said that although she sometimes grapples with the weight of people’s expectations, she does not feel as though she is under pressure.
“As for being a Black woman and being someone that’s Black in America and representing this country when I’m playing and when I’m doing things, I don’t feel any pressure,” she told Common.
“I embrace it. I know it sounds weird, because I know a lot of people, when they’re in this position, they kind of feel pressure or they kind of feel a different way. But I’ve never felt that way.”