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Why Serena Williams Is the Greatest Athlete of All Time

by Ann Donahue 7:55 AM PDT, August 29, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Let’s get the numbers out of the way on Serena Williams’ tennis career: Over her 21-year professional life, her winning percentage in singles AND doubles is 85%. In mixed doubles, it’s 87%. No matter who you are, no matter how high your ranking, if you step on the court and Serena is on the other side of the net, it’s very, very, very, very likely you’re going to lose. She has 22 Grand Slam singles titles from the biggest championships in her sport. She has 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. Six of those singles titles and two in doubles have come at the U.S. Open in New York, which starts Aug. 29.

But these numbers -- as impressive as they are to the case that Serena, 34, is the greatest athlete of all time -- aren’t really the most compelling evidence.

Photo: Getty Images

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Here is what pushes her to the top: Muhammad Ali, like Serena, competed at an inflection point in American history, and was also a person of color with a deep faith that wasn’t understood by many of his countrymen. But Ali was a man, and therefore didn’t have to put up with the endless commentary -- from both the mainstream media and fringe cranks -- on his physique and overt critiques of how it subverts gender expectations. It is Serena’s ability to rise above the critical gaze that all women face that sets her apart. No other athlete has put up with this amount of  sh*tty bodyshaming and persevered with such success and grace. 

No other athlete has put up with this amount of sh*tty bodyshaming and persevered with such grace. on Serena Williams

When the best athlete who has ever played the sport faces relentless pressure to confirm to a narrow-minded "norm" -- what hope do the rest of us who jog on a treadmill while watching The Bachelorette have? Here's the genius of Serena: She has shown that as long as you are passionate and competitive and want to metaphorically tear your opponent into tiny little pieces, you are the best. Everything else is noise, and that is the standard she alone can set.

Sure, she's had her bobbles recently - her recent lethargic performance in the Rio Olympics was baffling, and a reminder that she's human, not superhuman. But such is her reputation that the rare lousy tournament doesn't matter. You want to emulate her athletic prowess, but you also want her attitude and her bravery. According to reporters at her press conference after the Wimbledon semifinals this year, she elegantly shut down a question about being “one of the greatest female athletes of all time.” Her answer? “I prefer ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’”

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Serena doesn’t start feuds, she doesn’t clap back, she doesn’t take the reductive “haters gonna hate” attitude -- but she has, for decades, thoughtfully and rationally responded to her critics time and time again. I am overwhelmed with how tiresome this must be for her -- and yet, the glory of Serena is that despite this, she revels in her life and her accomplishments.

After Serena thoroughly clocked her best friend Caroline Wozniacki 6-3 6-3 in the finals of the 2014 U.S. Open, Wozniacki teased in her runner’s-up speech that Serena “definitely owed drinks later.” Fast forward to just past midnight, and we get this Instagram:

Off court, Serena lives it up and her joy is infectious. The most recent example of this, of course, is her appearance in Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”

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We’ve seen Serena dancing before, but this was on a whole different level. Her appearance in the kiss-off anthem par excellence is a statement about friendship and sisterhood -- and demolishing expectations.

Look closely at this Instagram of the two, in particular Beyonce’s posture in the chair.

@beyonce 🍋🍋🍋🍋

A photo posted by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on

Seem familiar?

Yeah, the shock value of Serena’s appearance was glorious -- the world’s No. 1 athlete being a video vixen for the world’s No. 1 performer is astounding -- but so is the fact that these two tremendous women are paying homage to each other in public. Serena is not only a product of the times, she defines the times.

And so let’s bow down to the Queen -- because Serena is not just the best -- she's each of us at our best.

And now it's girls day with my mom @lyndrea_imani @venuswilliams Isha we miss you. @paintedwomanbeverlyhills 😍

A photo posted by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on

To see a flashback video from 2000 of ET's first interview with Serena, check out the below:

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