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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Serena Williams is greatest athlete of her time

Serena Williams of the United States plays a

Serena Williams of the United States plays a forehand in her Ladies' Singles Third Round match against Heather Watson of Great Britain during day five of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 3, 2015 in London. Credit: Getty Images / Shaun Botterill

There has been a lot of talk about how Serena Williams stands on the precipice of history, about how a win at the U.S. Open next weekend would cement her place in many minds as the greatest women's tennis player ever.

Yet discussing Williams and her achievements in the relatively narrow confines of tennis or women's sports is like discussing Muhammad Ali's achievements simply by measuring their impact on boxing.

Williams is the greatest athlete of her generation, man or woman. No other American comes close. Not LeBron James. Not Tiger Woods. Not Tom Brady. Not even Michael Phelps, her closest competitor.

Williams beats out Phelps because, unlike her, his greatness has not transcended his sport.

Having won her 21 Grand Slam titles in the course of three different decades, Williams not only has won big but has done it her way. And in the process she has changed the way we perceive women in sports and redefined our ideas of what a female athlete should look like.

Curvy and powerfully built, Williams, 33, not only embraces her body, she highlights it with unapologetically bright and tight fashion choices. Every time Williams walks onto the court, she seems to be saying: "This is how I play, this is what I look like and I don't care if you like it."

While there has been much chatter during the past couple of weeks about how the blonde, svelte Maria Sharapova outearns the African-American Williams in endorsements, Madison Avenue might be missing the mark.

In this age of female empowerment, Williams offers young girls and women a different and powerful narrative, one that pursues and achieves athletic greatness and does so on her own terms.

Carolyn Becker, a professor at Trinity University who has done research on athletes and body image, says we need to stop focusing on how athletes look and instead talk about how they perform. When Becker works with athletes, she often points to Williams as a prime positive model.

"I point to Serena Williams as someone who, from an observational basis, seems to be focusing on her body and its functionality and how she can play her sport," Becker said. "We should all strive for that instead of a body that is a photographer's ideal of what a woman athlete should look like."

Williams and her sister, Venus, 35, made it cool to be powerful. In fact, they changed tennis by doing so, forcing a generation of players to get into the gym in order to be competitive on the court. Serena's tomahawk of a serve is one of the most devastating weapons in the history of sports, ranking right up there with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, Allen Iverson's crossover and Mariano Rivera's cutter.

The fact that Williams has done all this while having to face the dual challenges of racism and sexism has not been lost on others who once were considered the greatest athletes of their time.

Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote an interesting column for Time magazine about the body-shaming that Williams and African-American dancer Misty Copeland have had to endure en route to getting where they wanted to be. Abdul-Jabbar contends that society needs to change its idea about what is feminine, needs to stop equating femininity with weakness.

"The bigger issue here is the public pressure regarding femininity, especially among our athletes," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "It's a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field but in other aspects of life."

Serena Williams wouldn't let anything stifle her drive to excellence. Not racism. Not sexism. Not elitism and the fact that she began her tennis career learning from her father on a public tennis court instead of an expensive teaching pro at a private club.

Williams has dominated her sport for more than a decade and in doing so has changed both tennis and the world beyond. Not since Michael Jordan flew through the air, won six titles and convinced a generation of suburban boys to spend millions of dollars on his shoes have we had an athlete of such iconic impact.

Regardless of whether she wins it all next week at the U.S. Open, she can lay claim to being the greatest sports figure of her time.

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