Over 15 years into her career, Serena Williams still dominates on the tennis court. She has won 23 Grand Slam titles (each one at least three times), 72 Women’s Tennis Association titles, and four Olympic gold medals. It's hard not to argue that she's the greatest of all time. And yet, last night, as Williams was playing in her 20th Australian Open, people were fawning over Tom Brady's Super Bowl performance, declaring him the “greatest athlete ever” for winning his seventh championship. Though some people mentioned athletes like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan as competition for Brady's GOAT status, they should have been talking about Williams. So why weren't they?
Decked out in a Florence-Griffith-Joyner-inspired one-legged catsuit, 39-year-old Williams kicked off the tournament by handily defeating Laura Siegemund in less than an hour. Flo Jo, who died in 1998, is known as the fastest woman of all time — a fitting woman for Williams to pay tribute to. Much like Williams does on the court, Flo Jo put on a sartorial show on the track, wearing bodysuits that only covered one leg, a look that could also be seen on the dancers in Beyonce’s Coachella performance in 2018.
Though Williams has long been a tennis style icon, she started playing in bodysuits after the birth of her daughter in 2017. She wears them to prevent blood clots, which almost killed her after she delivered her baby. By wearing a bodysuit on the court, though, she was breaking the norms of tennis, a highly traditional sport; when she first wore one, the French Tennis Federation called her outfit “disrespectful.” But Williams did not let the controversy distract her, nor did she back down, and instead offered a clear glimpse at the way that being the greatest transcends athletic performance and inhabits all parts of an athlete's lifestyle.
She's pushed on, staging a comeback after her traumatic delivery experience. Less than a year after having her daughter, Williams made it to the finals at Wimbledon. In 2019, she clawed her way back into the Top 10 rankings. Despite being plagued by injuries, she won her first title as a mother in 2020. Now, in 2021, she's made her return to the Australian Open, which she hasn't won since 2017 — when she was pregnant — on her quest to break the all-time record for Grand Slam wins.
With all her accolades and accomplishments, it remains baffling that Williams continues to be left out of conversations around the greatest athletes. Imagine praising Tom Brady when Serena Williams is right there, literally performing at the same time the (fairly boring) Super Bowl was going on.
In some ways, it's understandable that the focus was on Brady on Sunday night. Football is, after all, the most popular sport in the U.S. and the Super Bowl has a much larger viewership than the Australian Open does; it's also difficult to compare an NFL quarterback to a professional tennis player. But if fans are going to continue to insist on identifying “the best ever,” overlooking Williams's numerous accolades is practically sacrilege. Her accomplishments on the court objectively speak for themselves. But in many ways, her outspokenness, boundary-breaking, and difference-making off-the-court are what truly set her apart.
Even Roger Federer, considered by many to be the tennis GOAT, believes that honor actually belongs to Williams. Williams has redefined success in her sport and she’s done it by smashing long-held norms around race and gender and respectability that have policed tennis players since the sport's inception. She’s done it while being called names, being constantly disrespected, and facing racist and sexist stereotypes head-on. She has achieved so much on the court while also standing up for herself and for little girls everywhere, Black girls in particular.
Williams has shut down reporters for demanding she smile during press conferences. She's called out what she saw as sexist disparities in officiating after she was docked a game for calling a ref a "thief." That criticism led to a series of racist attacks on her, which is something she's endured her entire career.
Even now, Williams faces backlash for being brash or outspoken or angry in ways that Brady, as a white man, never will. Brady can get away with being remembered for his on-field performance while having his support of Donald Trump conveniently erased; Williams' politics will never escape scrutiny in the same way.
Tom Brady may have seven Super Bowl rings, but he'll never be what Serena Williams is. She has fundamentally changed her sport in ways that will continue to reverberate for generations to come. It could be argued that Naomi Osaka's outspokenness about racism is possible because Williams came first. And coming first, pushing back, and still fighting, even when the attention is on a white Trump supporter, is perhaps what makes her the GOAT most of all.