Will Serena Williams make US Open history – on her own terms?

The US Open has started and even in the first week there is already of history in the air.

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Breaking records all year in the coming two weeks Serena Williams will attempt to achieve a feat only a few have managed — to win a calendar Grand Slam. 

With history resting on her shoulders, the focus for this year’s US Open will certainly be on the women’s draw. But what will that actually mean for women’s sport?  

Tennis has often been at the forefront of women’s sport. In the early days, tennis was one of the only sports to allow women to compete at an elite level, and female tennis stars have often stood at the same level as their male counterparts in cultural awareness. The regular punter is just as likely to be able to name Serena Williams or Margaret Court as they are Roger Federer or Rod Laver. 

Despite this though, women are still behind. Men still earn more and play their finals on the coveted Sunday afternoon spot, leading to inevitable media discrimination. Early Australian coverage of this year’s Open for example focused heavily on the chances of 37th seeded Nick Kyrgios, labelling the controversial player as “Australia’s best hope”. This virtually ignored Sam Stosur, who is not only seeded higher the Kyrgios, but is also the last Australian to win the US Open or any singles Grand Slam for that matter.

It is here where Serena Williams can, and has, changed things. Williams clearly has faced significant discrimination. Much of the discussion about her success for example focus solely on her body, ignoring both her brain and her skill. Williams is only successful because she has a body ‘like a man’. On the other side of the ledger though Williams is often portrayed solely as a sexual object, with immense focus on her clothes, her style and how ‘hot’ she looks in a dress. Williams is only championed as a sports star when she acts like a man, for the rest of the time being objectified as a sexual object for male desire. 

At the same time though Williams has challenged many of our assumptions about sport, and female sport in particular. While she is often placed into the standard stereotypes of female sport stars, she, and tennis in general, actively challenges many of these oppressive stereotypes as well. 

When we talk about female equality in sport it is often based in male terms. Women are expected to live up the masculinity of male sport — both in terms of the physical aspects but also in the way the game is run. Women’s sport must have the same ridiculously high pay, involvement of gambling, and huge commercial contracts that push out regular fans. 

What Serena Williams, and tennis in general, has done is to directly challenge this. Williams does not meet any of the tired stereotypes we demand female sports stars to live up to. She is strong, independent and courageous, as well as being feminine, graceful and intelligent at the same time. She is an amazing athlete, and one who seems to break through the prejudiced moulds almost every day. And on top of that, Williams has achieved amazing success — becoming an international superstar and household name. 

But this challenge goes to the heart of tennis itself. Last year, for example, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova called for men’s tennis to follow the lead of the women’s game and implement three-set Grand Slam matches. She said this not because she believes women can’t handle five-set matches, but because she thinks three-set matches are more interesting. Whether you agree with Sharapova or not what this shows is a women’s game that is trying to shape the sport in their own way rather than simply searching for success by emulating the men’s game. 

Women-created and led sport has been doing this for a long time, in particular rejecting many of the commercialised aspects of the male game. Sports such as netball and roller derby are perfect examples of this. Yet in many ways tennis is unique in that it is a male-created, and historically male-dominated sport, in which women are in many ways actively shaping their own path. While unfortunately still stuck/following many of the commercialised aspect of men’s tennis, the women’s game is doing things differently — defining the sport in their own way. More than any other player it is Serena Williams who is leading this charge.

Here is where this US Open could be more influential than any other in the competition’s history. It is here where we could potentially start to see a reshaping of our old, boring, stereotypes of female sport — stereotypes designed solely for the benefit of men. It is here where we could have the discussion about the masculine nature of sport and why this let’s us down. 

Will Williams escape the sexism that all her counterparts face on a daily basis? Obviously not. But her success, and that of tennis itself, has the potential to reshape the way we think about sport. 

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.