Serena Williams on the cover of Vanity Fair…
I gasped when I saw this this morning. And then I got pissed because I knew I wouldn’t be able to read it for a few hours. Then the magnificence of these photos made me forget my anger. I’ve been looking at them all day. And marveling, marveling at the fact that Serena, during her pregnancy, even though she’s not competing, is still working and showing her work.
But let’s start with the article. The article is written by Buzz Bissinger. That name might be familiar to you if you know Friday Night Lights. He wrote the book. He writes beautifully, which is why he’s won a Pulitzer. And he writes, often, about sports. So, basically, one of the best writers who writes about sports wrote a piece about the Greatest Of All Time, unless you ask John McEnroe, who’s making headlines this week for saying that Serena is the greatest “female” tennis player of all time but would only be ranked, like, 700 on the men’s tour. Whatever, John McEnroe. Let’s not make this about John McEnroe. He’s selling a book. Serena Williams doesn’t have to help him sell his book. She has other things to do. Like get back to the tour in January, which is only 6 months away, after she has her baby of course. Which, you get the sense, at least from reading this article, is just as important to her as her career.
Yes. Serena is having a baby. And her baby bump is all over the cover of this magazine. The feature inside the magazine, however, is NOT actually about Serena and the baby, the way so many celebrity pregnancy features are. This feature is about what it takes to be Serena:
When Serena isn’t feeling great about her backhand during a match? Serena goes straight to practice, for almost 3 hours, to hit 2,500 more backhands. TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED backhands. After playing a match! This is the effort of Serena Williams’ work.
When Serena found out she was pregnant right before this year’s Australian Open? She told almost no one, certainly not tournament officials and definitely not her coach. Instead, Serena strategised how she would be able to cope with pregnancy fatigue and still win the tournament. Her strategy: keep the matches short, make sure no matches go to a third set. That way she would be able to conserve energy. Serena won the Australian Open and she did not drop a set. This is the intelligence of Serena Williams’ work.
It’s training, it’s thousands of backhands, and it’s also strategy. Nobody ever f-cking gives her credit for that strategy. Every time they undermine her, focus on her muscular arms, her legs, focus on her physicality, they take away the fact that she’s the Greatest Of All Time because of her mind. So, now that she’s pregnant, and she’s not playing (for now), she’s decided that that’s what the work will be - to represent her work the way it should have been represented all along: as a combination of physical AND mental commitment and tenacity. What does that look like, beyond the trophies?
That is the thesis of this profile. Pregnancy is part of it, sure. But the thesis is Serena’s life’s work and pregnancy – and marriage – is discussed, it is framed within a greater narrative about Serena Williams’ worldview. Consider the story about her engagement and how Alexis Ohanian proposed to her. He did all the planning, he wanted it to be a surprise. But he had to do it around her practice schedule, because if you’re in Serena’s orbit, you know that when Serena has a slam coming up, nothing is taking Serena away from that focus. Otherwise she gets annoyed. And she was! She was annoyed about being whisked away to Italy. She was like… no but, seriously, this isn’t the best time. I mean, sure, in the end, she went. But the story here, as told to Buzz Bissinger, is clear: make sure that when you tell people about this nice thing that happened to me, you let them know that I had other things on my mind too.
So, even though Buzz keeps calling this article a “love story”, it’s kind of (deliberately) misleading. You go in thinking that this is the Serena+Alexis love story. You leave realising that this is the Serena+Serena love story – narratively and visually. Because what else can you take away from these images? This is also Serena’s intention: here I am, glorious in pregnancy, reveling in the gloriousness of my blackness. For how often does that happen? We have seen nude pregnancy on the cover of a major magazine - a certain kind of nude pregnancy, a certain shade of it, a certain size of it. We rarely see black pregnancy in these spaces, held up as an equal to the kind of pregnancy that’s typically acknowledged to be the standard. And, to go along with that, we rarely see a black woman as desired as Serena is in these spaces. Throughout this article, Alexis is the one who pursues, who pines, who does the emotional maintenance in their relationship (the way women have been maintaining marriages since the existence of marriage). And in these pictures, Alexis is photographed as the one who pursues, who pines, while Serena is presented as the one who is sought and adored. That’s not just work but reality – it’s Serena’s reality, a reality she’s sharing with black women who’ve been so long denied the opportunity to see it represented so publicly and so boldly.
Click here to read the piece and to see the pictures. She is MAGNIFICENT.