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Serena Williams Is Our Most Human Champion

And the avatar for our new series

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A few days after the 2016 French Open final, Serena Williams posted a short video on LeBron James’s site, UnInterrupted. The camera is turned toward a tennis court, and it wobbles as Serena delivers a frustrated voiceover about her 7–5, 6–4 loss to 22-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza. It wasn’t Serena’s best match; clay has never been kind to her, and she’d had some leg problems in the last couple rounds. Serena knows all this and spends most of the video berating herself, saying she could’ve played five times better. My favorite part is when Serena tries, albeit briefly, to put these events in some sort of perspective. “After the Paris final, which was great — ” is how she starts, and then she can’t help herself: “you know, for everyone on this planet with the exception of me. I don’t do what everyone else does.” She says it like it’s a threat.

Serena Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam this year. It’s fine. She’s favored at Wimbledon; she could win Rio (if she goes) and the U.S. Open, too. She could also possibly bomb out of all three and take a long vacation somewhere with a vibrant karaoke scene. With Serena, you never know, but also, you know. Losses don’t matter much anymore. A Grand Slam–less 2016 would be disappointing; it’d be nice to finally beat that Steffi Graf record, and it’s fun to watch Serena win — expressing joy is among her greatest skills, right after tennis and telling people to fuck off. But not even failure, in the traditional sense, can touch her at this point. She’s won 21 Grand Slams, four gold medals, and dozens of singles and doubles titles to date. She’s a 34-year-old black woman from Compton who has thoroughly conquered the white, country-club sport of tennis. She’s (finally) the highest-paid female athlete in the world. She is Beyoncé’s preferred dance partner. She is the greatest comeback artist of our lifetime. She doesn’t do what everyone else does. Or, put another way: Serena is undeniable.

You might have heard that the monoculture is dead. We — the country, the internet, the people sitting at a dinner table — will fight about anything, and the only cultural event that can unite us is an Adele song, or possibly a shirtless J.R. Smith. Not even a 3-year-old singing Drake makes the cut. Contrarianism is the common language; a million niche interests are our collective mainstream. We distinguish ourselves with quibbling opinions: Mad Men was overrated. Steph Curry doesn’t have the range. I’m extremely over Jennifer Lawrence. It is more than a division of taste, or a shift in the mechanisms of experience, though those are happening, too. We are finding new, smaller communities and enthusiasms, but we are losing the “popular” in pop culture.

So The Ringer started this project in an attempt — however embarrassingly earnest it might be — to find things we can agree on. The Undeniables, as we’ve named them, are the people, places, and things that have undeniably changed the complexion of society. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect; it definitely doesn’t mean they’re universally adored. But their achievements, across sports and culture and tech and life, are too remarkable to ignore.

In the next few days, we’ll make the case for our first list of Undeniables — some athletes, some artists, a few tech wizards, and at least one food product. They aren’t the only undeniable people or things in existence, but they’re a summary of what is important to us: general success, sure, but also creativity, determination, a slight underdog quality, and, for lack of a better word, flair. They have reinvented some corner of the world — they’re signifiers as much as they are people. To borrow a phrase we’ve used a lot around the office: They’re one of ones. It’s the closest we can get to a 100 percent approval rating in 2016.

Serena is almost — almost! — too obvious as an Undeniable in this context. It’s a little like choosing Oprah or Meryl Streep, women who are so far ahead of the game that they invented a new one. That is certainly what it’s like to watch Serena on the court. She’s playing one sport; her opponent is playing another. She turns top-seeded players into carwash balloons. I watch this sometimes to remind myself what a legend looks like:

Another, less obvious aspect of Serena I cherish: She hates work. Hates it. “I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out,” she told a group of unimpressed Australian journalists in 2012. “I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.” Her profiles and Snapchats are littered with quotes about how much she dislikes training, or early mornings, or the Herculean task of taking off her makeup, or doing things that aren’t sleeping or hosting a dance competition. She gives the requisite boring athlete quotes about how preparation is key and practice is the true champion — and she still does the practice — but then she reminds you how much it sucks.

You can actually see the will in Serena, as it is summoned in real time. You can watch her berate herself on the court; you can watch her turn around a third set like she just cracked the match’s source code. She has willed herself through any number of horrible situations: injuries, angry outbursts, blatant racism, family tragedies. The process of Serena is always on display. It can be rocky, which she gets criticized for, as if becoming the most dominant American athlete of this era, as if being a symbol of black female excellence, should be easy. Undeniable is a defensive word; it anticipates conflict. Few athletes make the conflict plainer than Serena, and no one on the planet overcomes it more frequently than her. She is our most human champion, and she isn’t sorry. That much is undeniable.