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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Serena Williams makes statement for gender equity

Serena Williams of US celebrates after defeating Johanna

Serena Williams of US celebrates after defeating Johanna Larsson of Sweden during their 2016 US Open women's singles match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 3, 2016. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ

Serena Williams made a statement Saturday at the U.S. Open, and it wasn’t just about fashion or even just about sports.

Williams, wearing what she called her neon-pink Wonder Woman sleeves, became the latest and biggest name to call for pay equity and publicly challenge the subtle and not so subtle sexism that permeates the treatment of female athletes.

Shortly after crushing Johanna Larsson, 6-2, 6-1, to collect Grand Slam match victory No. 307, passing Martina Navra tilova for the most by a woman in the Open era, Williams was asked about a recent Nike commercial that heralds her as the greatest athlete ever. In the commercial, the word female is crossed out between the words greatest and athlete, to hammer home the fact that athletes are athletes no matter what their gender.

“I’m a female and I’m an athlete, but I’m an athlete first,” Williams told the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I’d like to thank Nike and everyone for recognizing that female athletes can be great, too.”

Williams, who now needs just one more win to pass Roger Federer for most Grand Slams by a man or a woman, did not stop there. In her news conference afterward, she said that it ought to be “a priority” for the tour to offer equal money to female and male players. Currently, the prize money is equal for men and women in the Grand Slam tournaments but there are no rules governing the rest of the tour.

According to an Associated Press report earlier this year, the annual prize money paid to the 100 earners on the WTA and ATP tours roughly matches the gender pay gap in American workplaces with female tennis players earning 80 cents on each dollar men earn.

“I think it’s definitely possible,” Williams said when asked about closing the pay gap. “It’s going to take some work, but that’s what life is about. You have to work to create goals and you have to work at those goals and continue to knock at those doors until someone opens it . . . I think it should be a priority. I’m willing to work on it.”

The fact that she would tackle such a subject after a milestone victory goes a long way toward saying why Williams belongs in the greatest-athlete-ever conversation. There are a lot of names on that list. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Federer, Althea Gibson, Nadia Comaneci, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Navratilova and Billie Jean King were all mentioned in Williams’ news conference Saturday.

Working from that list, I would say that only King and Ali have had the kind of impact on their sport and society that Williams has had.

Williams, who won her 22 major singles titles over the course of three different decades, has not only won big but has done it her way. She made it cool to be powerfully built and curvy. She forced a generation of young players into the gym in order to be competitive. Her tomahawk serve is one of the most devastating weapons in sports, ranking right up there with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook and Mariano Rivera’s cutter.

She highlighted her body with unapologetically bright and tight fashion choices. “This is who I am, this is how I play and I don’t care if you like it” is her attitude every time she walks onto the court. She has offered a generation of young girls a powerful narrative, one that embraces a person’s body and how it can be used to pursue athletic greatness. And she did all this while facing the dual challenges of sexism and racism.

Williams always has been bold and outspoken. But now, in one of the later chapters of her career, she seems to be thinking beyond herself and her game. Though she stands at the precipice of tennis history — a win tomorrow would give her more Grand Slam match wins than any other player — she also realizes that she is standing at the precipice of some other social changes.

Said Williams: “I definitely think there is a difference between the way male and female athletes are treated. I also believe that as a woman, we still have a lot to do and a lot going forward. I think tennis has made huge improvements. We just have to keep that going for all other female sports as well.”

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