From the outset, the most significant impact concerning Serena Williams gaining the prestigious honor from Sports Illustrated is that it is no longer the Sportsman or Sportswoman of the Year Award. Instead, it is the Sportsperson of the Year, marking an evolution in the Award’s history. With such change, it is only fitting that Williams represented it, subsequently becoming the first woman in over 30 years to be recognized with the award.
Mary Decker was the last female athlete to gain the recognition by herself, gaining the prestigious honor in 1983. Although other women in sport such as gymnast Mary Lou Retton, speed skater Bonnie Blair and basketball coach Pat Summitt have earned the nod as well, all shared it with men. With regards to tennis, the last female player to receive the honor was Chris Evert, winning in 1976.
Of note, Williams was not the only woman considered for the award. Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the final of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, bringing the US its first championships since 1999, made her mark as an American sporting hero. Conversation was even augmented over the naming of a winner, even including a Triple Crown winning horse known as American Pharoah.
In a year that saw so many women make their mark in sport, from Janine Weber becoming the first European player to score the Clarkson Cup clinching goal, to Dr.Jen Welter becoming the first female assistant coach in the NFL, it signified a landmark year for women. As a side note, when Williams was the guest editor of the publication Wired in October 2015, she featured Welter in a two-page piece.
Considering that she won 53 of 56 matches, including three of the prestigious Grand Slam events, it was the most dominant sporting performances of the season by any athlete, male or female. The one achievement that Williams has not reached (although it is attainable) is the record of 21 Grand Slam titles, held by Steffi Graf.
Although 2015 saw her add to an incredible sporting legacy, her return to Indian Wells may have been the most significant moment. Considering that the event marked one of the first milestones in her career (defeating Steffi Graf there in 1999), it helped bring closure to a sullen chapter in an otherwise superlative career.
Having last appeared at the event in 2001, it proved to be a difficult moment in her career. With accusations by a player (who later apologized) at the event that her father, Richard, decided matches between Serena and her older sister, Venus, it led to a firestorm of controversy as the two were scheduled to face each other in the semifinals.
After Venus was forced to withdraw from the match due to injury, the crowd booed, resulting in harsh criticism by some in the press. The booing would continue in the finals as Serena faced Kim Clijsters. In the aftermath, she made the visceral yet courageous decision to boycott the event, which displayed a show of support for her older sister, only strengthening an already unbreakable bond.
Throughout her career, she has challenged perceptions and stereotypes about athletes, body image (even appearing nude from behind in the final issue of Jane magazine) and raised the bar for the impact that visible minorities can have in sport as more than just leaders, but individuals capable of making positive change. Along with Venus, they would become the first female African-American owners of an NFL team, purchasing a stake in the Miami Dolphins.
In the process, she has proven to be an empowering role model for women of all sizes, ages and backgrounds, while establishing herself as one of the most famous female athletes (and women) in the world. Despite being 34 years of age, Williams shows no signs of slowing down, possibly setting a new standard on Grand Slam victories before her career reaches its twilight.