What Serena Williams means to Black women
Chanda Rubin, a Tennis Channel commentator and former sixth-ranked singles player in the world, credits some small part of her fifth WTA singles title to Serena Williams. Rubin beat Williams “by the skin of her teeth,” she said, in a three-set quarterfinal in Los Angeles in August 2002. At the end of the match, the players met to shake hands and Williams told Rubin, “Now go win the tournament.”
It was the kind of tacit support any Black person operating in a majority-White space might recognize.
Williams is more than five years younger than Rubin, who was no slouch herself and had won a title already that summer. But Williams was No. 1 at the time and had been on a 21-match winning streak that included a victory over Rubin at Wimbledon. Her words imbued within Rubin a confidence she still vividly remembers today.
“She said that to me, and I thought, ‘Okay, yeah, I should.’ And then I won the tournament!” Rubin said. “It was just something about being a competitor and going all out against her, but having total respect, being uplifted by her — all of those feelings, for me, are wrapped up in it.”
As Williams begins the U.S. Open, which she has hinted will be the end of her tennis career, she leaves in her wake more than two decades’ worth of Black women who have watched her and at some point or another felt like Rubin did standing at the net that day. Proud. Uplifted. Energized.
Williams is a talisman for many Black women because the only lines she ever stayed within were on a tennis court. Even her presence there, at the time of her and her sister Venus’s debuts in the late 1990s, was radical, more than 40 years after Althea Gibson became the first Black player to win a Grand Slamtitle.