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Serena Williams’ Legacy for Public Officials — and for the American Dream

The Williams sisters’ story is about more than glory, grit and power. Among other things, it shows how investments in public parks and recreational programs can help many reach their potential.

Serena Williams of the United States celebrates her win against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit during their 2022 U.S. Open Tennis tournament women's singles second-round match on Aug. 31, 2022.
Serena Williams of the United States celebrates her win against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit during their 2022 U.S. Open Tennis tournament women's singles second-round match on Aug. 31, 2022.
(Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
I recently returned from this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City, where I watched tennis great Serena Williams play what probably would be her last tournament tennis match. I had to see her grace the court one last time, with her awe, glory, grit and power, in the last of professional tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments of the year.

Serena and her sister Venus are not just role models and icons for women and kids of all backgrounds who play tennis; they are the best argument for why local governments should invest more in parks and recreation. Right now, somewhere in the U.S. on a public tennis court — perhaps like the one the Williams sisters started on in Compton, Calif. — may be a future athlete who will change the sport and redefine greatness like they have.

As my plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, it dawned on me how much collaboration among local government, the business community and the United States Tennis Association is required to stage an event as large as the U.S. Open. Each year it draws more than 700,000 tennis enthusiasts to the city. Some years ago, New York City officials signed a 99-year lease with the association to manage what is now called the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a public park in Queens that was once the site for two World’s Fairs. Among other sports events and concerts, the tennis center hosts the annual U.S. Open over two weeks in three large venues, including the 24,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, named for the first and only African American man to win the U.S. Open.

Serena’s match on the second day of September was not just a U.S. Open tennis competition. It was perhaps one of the greatest, and certainly history-making, athletic events of all time. It was her swan dance before beloved fans. And she went out, and down, swinging like the champion she truly is. Momentarily, the match drowned out anxieties, concerns and noise in the media about America being on the verge of a civil war. For the nearly three hours of the match, at home and in the arena, it seemed like the nation came together.

I felt this every time the crowd roared and chanted “Serena!” or “GOAT!” (for “greatest of all time!”). Our seats were a few rows above Serena’s box — close enough to watch the movements and reactions of her family and guests. We observed her husband Alexis Ohanian popping up and down from his seat whenever Serena crushed a serve or return. Denver Broncos Quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, the singer Ciara, held hands. Serena’s hitting partner Jarmere “Hands” Jenkins, a former University of Virginia tennis standout, looked on nervously. Interestingly, he learned to play tennis at a public park in Atlanta with my youngest daughter, Najé.

I first saw Serena and Venus play tennis as juniors at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in the 1990s. Later, after they established their fame and fortunes, I was perplexed for years as to why they did not speak out more than they did on social issues. Often victims of racial discrimination themselves, they chose not to use their platforms in a significant way to elevate awareness of the exploitation of Black athletes or to call attention to issues like police brutality. They rarely spoke out explicitly about race, although their father, Richard Williams, often did. It is hard for many Americans, Black and white, to empathize with what it must have been like being two young Black females in an essentially all-white sport.

Recently while I was having brunch with some friends in New York they surmised that Serena’s and Venus’ reluctance to speak out explicitly about racial prejudice might have had something to do with their religious upbringing as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe that provides an answer, but I believe my daughter Ndelea summed it up best when she said that both Serena and Venus let their tennis rackets do the talking. “The power and swagger in their games stemmed not just from the skill of training but from the deep well of anger, pain and injustice that not only they had experienced but generations of African Americans before them endured as well,” she added. Later in her career, as Serena became more popular, she did become an articulate voice for, among other causes, racial and gender equality within professional tennis, and she became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

Beyond social issues, it’s hard to overstate the Williams sisters’ impact on sports and American society in general. In fact, the Williams sisters saved women’s tennis — maybe tennis overall — by making it exciting and the type of programming that advertisers and sponsors would underwrite. Their power games and take-no-prisoner attitudes, coupled with the Horatio Alger-like story of their rise from poverty to the upper echelons of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, made them not only sports icons but symbols of what can be accomplished by believing in the American dream.

At the end of Serena’s final match, the event organizers blasted over the speakers “The Best” by Tina Turner. We cried for reasons not altogether clear. I have had a few days to reflect on the reasons why: Serena is a metaphor for the potential of all Black youth. She defies the odds. Her story points to the relevance and significance of having a strong family support system to serve as her village. In Serena’s gracious comments following her last match, she shared with fans: “There would be no Serena without Venus.” In statements like that and other comments both have made publicly, I sensed the love between them and the admiration and gratitude they both hold for their parents.

The lessons for public officials from the Williams sisters’ story are many. Invest in public parks and recreational programs because they contribute to the development and discovery of future Serena and Venus Williamses. Support programs that help develop all youths — even those who don’t become professional athletes — by keeping them out of harm’s way. Many of the young minority tennis players on the professional circuit today got their start at city-owned parks. Many who did not make it, or chose not to try out for professional sports, still benefited by earning athletic scholarships to higher education institutions. Public officials should bear these things in mind the next opportunity they have to increase funding for parks and recreation.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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