Sports Illustrated names Serena Williams the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. The tennis superstar dominated the sport by winning three major titles and completing her second “Serena Slam” – she won four consecutive Grand Slam titles dating back to the 2014 U.S. Open. Williams won 53 of her 56 matches, was ranked No. 1 every week for the second consecutive year, and is now one short of Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era. The 34-year-old Williams accomplished all this while battling a string of injuries, producing one of the greatest late-career runs in the history of any sport. Williams was also a force off the court, making a powerful statement by returning to play a tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., for the first time since 2001, when she was greeted there with boos and, her family has charged, racist slurs. Williams used her return as an opportunity to speak out against injustice and called her decision to play at Indian Wells her “greatest moment in tennis.”
Williams’s status as a global icon was never more clear than it was in 2015. She appeared in movies and TV shows, guest-edited magazines and published essays and counts many of the world’s most influential people as her friends. She has utilized her broad platform to advocate for racial justice, gender equality and equal access to education around the world. As SI’s Sportsperson of the Year Williams joins an elite group that includes such icons as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, Joe Montana and Jack Nicklaus. In addition, this year’s announcement marks the official renaming of the honor as the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award.
“This year was spectacular,” said Serena Williams. “For Sports Illustrated to recognize my hard work, dedication and sheer determination with this award gives me hope to continue on and do better. As I always say, it takes a village— not just one person. This is not just an accomplishment for me, but for my whole team and all my fans. I am beyond honored.”
Since 1954, Sports Illustrated editors have annually presented the award to the athlete, team or coach who transcended the year in sports by achieving the highest level of athletic excellence, while demonstrating the ideals of sportsmanship. Williams is the first woman to be recognized with the honor as an individual since Mary Decker in 1983, and the first active tennis player since Chris Evert in 1976 (Arthur Ashe was Sportsman of the Year in 1992). Basketball coach Pat Summitt was the most recent woman to be Sportsperson of the year when she shared the distinction with another basketball coach, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in 2011. Additional women to have been honored include the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, Patty Sheehan and Judi Brown, who were both recognized as part of the Athletes Who Care group in 1987.
“Serena has made a very strong case as not only the greatest tennis player of her generation but of all time, and after the string of performances she put together in 2015, she is one of the most dominant athletes playing today,” said Sports Illustrated Group Editor Paul Fichtenbaum. “Her extraordinary accomplishments on and off the court this year made the most deserving candidate for this award and also brought about the perfect opportunity to officially designate it as the Sportsperson of the Year moving forward.”
In 2015, Williams won her 19th, 20th and 21st Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, respectively. She was the year-end No. 1 for the fifth time in her career. She was so dominant that for one six-week stretch this summer Williams had twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000. Over her career Williams has won 66 singles championships and 22 doubles championships, and she was a gold medalist at the 2000 (doubles), 2008 (doubles) and 2012 (singles and doubles) Olympics.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price for the Sportsperson story, Williams opens up about her remarkably successful yet emotional year and says of her career, “I do want to be known as the greatest ever.”
On her dramatic return to Indian Wells, Williams tells SI: “Everyone always asked, ‘What was your greatest moment in tennis?’ and I always said it hasn’t happened… But I think it has happened now, and that was going back to Indian Wells and playing. It released a lot of feelings that I didn’t even know I had. I was really surprised at how emotional I got — and how relieved I felt after everything was said and done.”
“Even amid such a rich collection of finalists, Serena Williams was a decisive choice,” said Sports Illustrated Managing Editor Chris Stone. “As a performer, as a doer, as a symbol, no one extended themselves and embraced the best (and worst) the sports world has to offer quite like Serena Williams, champion, 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.”
Price writes: “In 2015 Williams hit this rare sweet spot, a pinch-me patch where the exotic became the norm … [her] numbers are reason enough for Sports Illustrated to name Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. But the numbers lie. Her tennis year was all internal discord and quelled revolts; Williams battled her body like never before … But she refused to buckle … It’s an old saw that a nation gets the president it deserves. Maybe the same goes for its champions. No other active U.S. athlete rules a sport the way Serena Williams rules hers, and few reflect our era better.”
Williams will be honored on Tuesday in New York City during a celebration that will include tributes to Jack Nicklaus, the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award recipient; Reece Whitley, the 2015 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKid of the Year; and Hunter Gandee, the 2015 SI High School Athlete of the Year. The event will be sponsored by Chase, Gatorade, Johnnie Walker, New York Life, Robert Graham and U.S. Marine Corps.