Real life? For Serena Williams, that’s the easy part now. That’s how it works when you zoom—beyond tennis, beyond $74 million in prize money, beyond one of the greatest late-career runs in sports history—into celebrity hyperspace. That’s how it is when each “Come on!” is taken as a war cry by everyone from “Lean in” women to age-defying codgers to body-shamed kids to #BlackLivesMatter protesters to, yes, the voices of racial conciliation. The outside world accommodates. Real life does you favors.
Indeed, in 2015 Williams hit this rare sweet spot, a pinch-me patch where the exotic became the norm. She danced with Donald Trump on New Year’s Eve. She spent a night telling bedtime stories to the children of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Growing up, Williams had devoured every Harry Potter book, marveled at the business empires of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Now J.K. Rowling was tweeting against a critic of Williams’s body, now Oprah was hustling to watch her at the U.S. Open, now Stewart was calling Williams “the most powerful woman I know.” President Barack Obama, the most scrutinized man alive, told her how great it was to watch her.
Even Williams’s most dubious moves paid off. In July, just as her drive for tennis’s first Grand Slam in 27 years hit the bell lap, she appeared in Pixels, a comedic bomb in which she anticipated a Lincoln Bedroom sex sandwich with Stewart and Peter Dinklage. Yet she escaped critical savaging, and, oh, the movie grossed $243 million. Williams’s November decision to chase down a cellphone thief in San Francisco seemed equally foolhardy—until, that is, the guy gave her phone back. Meekly.
No, this year only the game gave Williams trouble. Only the 78-by-36-foot confines of a tennis court, be it blue asphalt or red clay or green grass, produced the kind of pushback that no amount of money or fame can overcome. If the real world felt like one A-list club after another, eagerly waving Williams in, tennis was the world’s most annoying bouncer, forever checking her ID. Tennis made her desperate. Then it made her hurt.
The results, of course, hardly imply that: Williams, 34, won three major titles, went 53–3 and provided at least one new measure of her tyrannical three-year reign at No. 1. For six weeks this summer—and for the first time in the 40-year history of the WTA rankings—Williams amassed 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. Williams’s 21 career Grand Slam singles titles are just one short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record. Such numbers are reason enough for Sports Illustrated to name Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.