Black Excellence In White Spaces: Serena Williams, Tiger Woods And The End Of An Era

(Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic)

For the last 26 years the biggest names in women’s tennis and golf have been Serena Williams and Tiger Woods. Nobody moved, and still moves, the needle like these two superstars. Between them they have 38 major championships (Williams 23 and Woods 15). They’ve spent a collective 1,002 weeks ranked number one in the world (Woods 683 and Williams 319). That’s 19 years combined. But at ages 46 (Woods) and 40 (Williams) with injuries and recent struggles in major championships, the end looks like it’s near.

Golf and tennis are often referred to as country club sports. On the exclusive grounds of these members only clubs are where the elite (mostly white) kids develop their skills.

Before Woods there was Calvin Peete. He was the best Black golfer, having won 12 tournaments, including the 1985 Tournament Players Championship and finished the season top-5 on the PGA Tour money list three times; 1982, 1983 and 1985. He was ranked in the top 10 players on the McCormack’s World Golf Rankings in 1984.

Before Williams there was Althea Gibson, the first Black player to win a Grand Slam. She went on to claim five Grand Slam titles. The French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the US Open in 1957 and 1958.

Outside of a few Black players here and there that played and had a little success, these sports were dominated by white athletes since their inception.

Woods turned pro in 1996 and won two tournaments and was named PGA Tour rookie of the year. The following year he won his first major at the Masters by a then-record, becoming the youngest winner in tournament history. Two months later he became No. 1 in the world.

Williams turned professional in 1995. But under the guidance of her father and coach Richard Williams she played a very light schedule those first four years. Richard wanted his daughters (Serena and Venus) to avoid burnout. Serena didn’t win her first singles title until 1999 at the Open Gaz de France.

Later that year at 17 years of age, Serena Williams defeated in succession Grand Slam champions Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martínez, Monica Seles, and defending champion Lindsay Davenport to reach the U.S. Open final, where she defeated world No. 1 Martina Hingis. She became the second Black woman to win a Grand Slam.

Both superstars went on to experience tremendous highs.

Woods won six consecutive PGA Tour events in 2000, the longest win streak on tour since 1948. He won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship that year. The following year he won the 2001 Masters, meaning he held all four of the most recent majors. A feat known as the “Tiger Slam.”

After winning her first Grand Slam in 1999, Williams lost her next few Grand Slam finals to big sister Venus. Then in 2002 Serena went on a run of her own. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. The next year in 2003 she won the season’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open. Serena Williams held all four of the most recent majors. A feat known as the “Serena Slam.”

More wins, endorsements and fame accrued for both. They were universally recognized as not only the greatest of their era, but the greatest of all time.

The journey wasn’t always smooth for either. Whether it was injuries (both), Woods’ marital affairs and substance abuse, Williams’ battle with tennis linesmen or chair umpires, they always found a way to rise to the top, like the incredible champions they are.

In 2017 Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam while pregnant with her daughter and in 2019 Woods won his 15th major championship after undergoing several back surgeries and lumbar fusion.

Both players haven’t performed up to the standards of their heyday and comments recently made, suggest they both know the end is near.

Woods missed the cut at the British Open this year at St. Andrews, his favorite golf course. He started to tear up as he walked up the fairway on the final hole.

“Yes, it’s very emotional for me. I’ve been coming here since 1995, and I don’t know when — I think the next one comes around in what, 2030 — and I don’t know if I will be physically able to play by then,” said Woods.
“So to me it felt like this might have been my last British Open here at St Andrews. And the fans, the ovation and the warmth, it was an unbelievable feeling.
“I had a few tears. I’m not one who gets very teary-eyed very often about anything. But when it comes to the game and the passing on of — just the transition.”

Williams lost in the first round at Wimbledon this year for the second consecutive time. She’s won seven titles at the All England Club, tied with the Australian Open for the Grand Slam she’s won the most. It’s the most prestigious of the four Grand Slam championships.

“Today I gave all I could do, you know, today,” a dejected Williams told a packed room of reporters after the match. “Maybe tomorrow I could have gave more. Maybe a week ago I could have gave more. But today was what I could do.
“At some point, you have to be able to be OK with that. And that’s all I can do. I can’t change time or anything, so, that’s all I could do on this particular day.”

Neither of them is willing to concede right now and say they’re retiring. That defiance is what makes them great. It’s what allowed them both to excel in spaces that didn’t want excellence to look like them.