Tennis star Serena Williams’ remarkable run this year may have been cut short by an upset at the U.S. Open. But she just received a special consolation prize: She’s been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.
Williams is the first woman to be honored solo since 1983, when track star Mary Decker got the nod. The accolade marks a historic year in which she won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon – and 53 of the 56 total matches she played.
“This year was spectacular,” Williams, 34, said in a statement on Instagram on Monday. ”For Sports Illustrated to recognize my hard work, dedication and sheer determination with this award gives me hope to continue on and do better. As I always say, it takes a village— not just one person. This is not just an accomplishment for me, but for my whole team and all my fans. I am beyond honored.”
But not everyone was enthused with the selection of Williams, or with her glamorous cover photo. Voters in the magazine’s reader poll backed racing horse and Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh. That touched off a passionate social media debate about whether a non-human was more deserving. Her selection also brought a familiar mix of body shaming and insults from some online.
In addition to discussing her unprecedented success on the tennis court, Sports Illustrated’s profile touches on the aspects of Williams’ personality that have made her polarizing – including her penchant for profanity-laced tirades during matches. The piece also addresses what some consider the elephant in the room: race.
This year Williams appeared at a tournament in Indian Wells, California, where she allegedly was taunted with racial slurs as a teenager early in her career. She reportedly avoided events there for years and Indian Wells came to represent what Sports Illustrated calls the “WTA Tour’s open wound, revealing simmering tensions in a sport that had long heralded itself as a pioneer in racial and sexual equality.” Williams finally put the controversy to rest with her decision to return, which she said was inspired in part by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“We are honoring Serena Williams too for reasons that hang in the grayer, less comfortable ether, where issues such as race and femininity collide with the games. Race was used as a cudgel against Williams at Indian Wells in 2001, and she returned the blow with a 14-year self-exile from the tournament. She returned to Indian Wells in ’15, a conciliator seeking to raise the level of discourse about hard questions, the hardest ones, really,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s managing editor Christian Stone, in a separate op-ed. “She’s determined to make a difference,” he added.
Still, despite her dominance of women’s tennis for several years, Williams makes roughly half of what Russian-born player Maria Sharapova earns in endorsement money, leading one columnist to dub Williams the “most undervalued athlete in the game today.” During an appearance on Shift by MSNBC’s “Sports Matters” this summer, Forbes’ sportswriter Patrick Rishe said there may be a corporate bias against Williams, since tennis is “still a majority white and affluent sport.”
Nevertheless, the SI cover story received widespread praise from her supporters, too, many of whom celebrated her poise and sex appeal: