On Monday, Serena Williams earned the latest in a long series of major titles over the course of her career: Serena Williams is Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year for 2015. The honor comes after a stellar season in which Williams consistently ranked No. 1. Though she came just one Grand Slam short of breaking Steffi Graf's record, Williams played her best season since her first Serena Slam more than 10 years ago with 53 wins out of her 56 matches. These stats may have helped her earn the magazine's honor, but Williams' Sports Illustrated profile paints a much more vivid picture of why she deserves to be Sportsperson of the Year.
In a statement, Sports Illustrated explained that Williams was an easy decision:
Serena has made a very strong case as not only the greatest tennis player of her generation but of all time, and after the string of performances she put together in 2015, she is one of the most dominant athletes playing today.
Judging by this description, one might not guess that Williams is 20 years into her career. Since debuting in 1995, Williams has amassed an incredible 21 Grand Slam titles and shattered numerous records, including becoming the first No. 1 player to have twice as many points as the No. 2 player in the WTA.
But numbers aside, what the publication really focuses on is Williams' tenacity and unbreakable spirit. One of the most revealing, and defining, parts of the profile describes how she overcame multiple body ailments — bruised bones, a strained elbow, a 101-degree fever, and the flu — to remain No. 1 in women's tennis every week for the second consecutive year. Women's tennis legend Chris Evert is quoted in the piece:
If I'd had a 101º fever, I'd default. But she's just different from everybody else.
Her observation offers a glimpse at how Williams has redefined tennis, which will undoubtedly be part of her legacy and is another reason Sports Illustrated has chosen her for its annual cover. The piece notes:
At times, then, it became almost easy to forget Williams's ailments, to marvel not just at her relentlessly lethal strokes and serve but also at the pure physicality that has pushed the women's game to a level unforeseen by Graf and certainly by Margaret Court, who holds the Grand Slam record of 24 singles titles.
But yet another way in which Williams has redefined the sport has nothing to do with her physical abilities. Without a choice, Williams has challenged and defied racial stereotypes that continue to plague professional tennis simply by playing and excelling in the sport. The article recounts a traumatic moment early on in her career when a lesser-known Williams was booed at Indian Wells, where the crowd allegedly hurled racial slurs at her. The incident prompted her to boycott the tournament for the next 14 years, but this year she "proudly returned" for "the love of the game" and with "a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness."
What's even more remarkable than her new sense of forgiveness, the profile notes, is that its concurrent with Williams' new sense of activism. Even though she's coming to terms with the racial discrimination that has plagued her journey, she's not going to sit back and watch as the country goes through one of its most tumultuous times in history. She told Sports Illustrated:
I want to help everyone to see the so-called light. But there are a lot of other athletes, actors, politicians who are speaking out—of all colors, by the way. They're not sitting back. They're calling for justice straight away. It makes me look at myself and say, like, What am I doing? I have a platform. I can speak out, too. If one person hears me, maybe that person can speak out and help. I embrace that. I'm willing and happy to be part of this new movement.
Image: Sports Illustrated