Serena Williams: ‘I felt underpaid and undervalued’

Serena Williams says she felt underpaid in the tennis fraternity. (Photo: GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)
Serena Williams says she felt underpaid in the tennis fraternity. (Photo: GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)

Serena Williams has fought a long hard battle with racism and sexism to become a force to be reckoned with – and she’s not done yet.

She is one of the most celebrated sportswomen in the world, with an incredible four Olympic gold medals and 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, but there was a time when the 39-year-old former world number one says she felt underpaid as an athlete and undervalued by society.

In a new interview with Vogue, Serena opens up about her struggles with body image, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and being ill-treated by the tennis fraternity.

“When I was growing up, what was celebrated was different,” Serena says of her body. “[My sister] Venus looked more like what is really acceptable. She has incredibly long legs, she’s really, really, thin. I didn’t see people on TV that looked like me, who were thick. There wasn’t positive body image. It was a different age.”

Having played tennis since childhood – and professionally for 25 years – Serena has learned to love her body and wishes she’d done so sooner.

The birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia (3) with husband Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, also changed the way she looks at herself.

“How amazing that my body has been able to give me the career that I’ve had. And I’m really thankful for it. I only wish I had been thankful sooner. It just all comes full circle when I look at my daughter.”

Despite the many incidents of racism and sexism Serena has faced, she says she has “never been a person that has been like, ‘I want to be a different colour’ or ‘I want my skin tone to be lighter”.

“I like who I am, I like how I look and I love representing the beautiful dark women out there. For me, it’s perfect. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

In the November issue of the magazine, the athlete also discusses the surge of Black Lives Matter protests which followed the death of George Floyd in May.

Floyd was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck until he lost consciousness and died. His death sparked global protests against police violence towards black people.

“At the end of May, I had so many people who were white writing to me saying, ‘I’m sorry for everything you’ve had to go through.’ I think for a minute they started – not to understand, because I don’t think you can understand – but they started to see. I was like, ‘Well, you didn’t see any of this before? I’ve been talking about this my whole career. It’s been one thing after another’”.

Serena says social media and the internet have pulled back the curtain on ugly truths “that have been hidden for years. The things that we as people have to go through. This has been happening for years. People just couldn’t pull out their phones and video it before.”

Serena is working to uplift women and people of colour through her venture capital firm and her size-inclusive fashion label, Serena.

“In this society, women are not taught or expected to be that future leader or future CEO. The narrative has to change. And maybe it doesn’t get better in time for me, but someone in my position can show women and people of colour that we have a voice, because Lord knows I use mine. I love sticking up for people and supporting women. Being the voice that millions of people don’t have.”


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24