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Serena Williams forced sports journalists to get out of the ‘toy box’ – and cover tennis as more than a game

By Shasi Kumar

Sports Desk (DT) 31, Aug 2022 | 21: 22 PM

Those serves, unleashed over the course of a 27-year professional career, arguably heightened the power and intensity of the women’s game, forcing her opponents to game plan for each wicked volley.

Serena Williams serves in her quarterfinal match during the 2019 Australian Open. Cameroon Spencer/Getty Images

Williams’ presence as a Black woman in a historically white, patriarchal sport, her commitment to activism and her willingness to bare her personal challenges to the public forced sports journalists to reevaluate professional norms that urged them to focus only on what happened between the lines.

Sports journalism emerged in the late 19th century and fully established itself as a distinct journalism genre when newspaper publishers, in an effort to attract wider audiences, moved away from being partisan party organs. Sports quickly became a lucrative way to sell newspapers.

Those apolitical origins shaped its future trajectory. Success often depended on access to players and front office personnel, as well as cozy relationships with league officials. Chief among the outcomes of that arrangement was the general reluctance among sports journalists to cast a critical eye toward the role sports plays in our communities and greater society.

In general, Americans often imagine sports as aligned with the values they hold dear. Journalists and public officials regularly talk about sports as the embodiment of a meritocracy and a reflection of the power of the individual to overcome any biases or challenges.

Such media narratives fail to address how sports, despite all their feel-good moments, play a role in contributing to forms of discrimination and alienation.

Serena Williams stretches for a backhand during the 1998 French Open when she was 16 years old. Clive Brunskill /Allsport via Getty Images