Serena Williams just beat out American Pharaoh as Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. The title makes sense not only because she’s a person and American Pharaoh is not, but also because the 34-year-old tennis legend won 53 of her 56 matches this year, maintained the top Women’s Tennis Rankings spot every week of 2015, and holds a jaw-dropping 21 Grand Slam titles to date.
Williams’ skill on the court isn’t the only reason the magazine chose the athlete. “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,” Sports Illustrated’s Christian Stone writes. Williams’ profile details her advocacy around race alongside her tireless dedication to her sport — “I do want to be known as the greatest ever,” she states.
The magazine also nods to Williams’ contributions to the conversation on body positivity. “She was a difference-maker in other areas,” Stone writes, “speaking out against body-shamers in both words and actions, posing for the Annie Leibovitz–shot Pirelli calendar in only a bikini bottom. The cover shot of this issue? Her inspiration, intended, like the Pirelli shots, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, power.” Her stunning cover captures all three.
Williams’s ability to overcome physical and mental adversity, in particular, makes her especially deserving of the title. In its accompanying article, Sports Illustrated outlined the many unseen health problems Williams faced while competing in 2015. The article reads:
“A cough and cold had her vomiting before and, for the first time, during a match: the Australian Open final, in January, which she won anyway. Bone bruises in both knees, the residue of 20 years of pounding, flared during the spring hardcourt swing and never subsided. Her focus frayed, her footwork suffering, she arrived at the French Open nursing a right elbow strain that would plague her unparalleled serve the rest of the year . . . But she refused to buckle.”
Williams has also shown tremendous personal growth. Though known for her tough demeanor, she admitted to loosening up a little this year. Instead of firing back at line judges and the like, she explained how she’s adopted a different approach to obstacles on the court. She said, “A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to laugh. I haven’t lost that part of me; I’m very passionate on the court, but I’ve learned to be fierce more on the inside.”
Runner Mary Decker in 1983 was the last female athlete to earn the magazine’s award by herself.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team was picked by SI in 1999; speedskater Bonnie Blair in 1994 and gymnast Mary Lou Retton in 1984 were co-honorees with male Olympians. In 2011, Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt shared the award with Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Men’s sports has dominated until recently, when women’s sports has grown in popularity, and the competition is better than ever,” Fichtenbaum said. “There’s more of a focus on women’s sports now. It’s grown considerably. Specifically why? I’m not sure.”
Other tennis players honored by SI were Arthur Ashe in 1992, Chris Evert in 1976, Billie Jean King in 1972.