Serena Williams is impossible to ignore. Her journey from Compton tennis courts to the world stage has been met with both fervent fans and detractors. The athlete has been booed by an entire stadium, called a man by competitors and referred to as unsportsmanlike. But despite the naysayers, Williams continues on her steadfast path to greatness with 71 singles championships, nearly 1,000 victories and two decades on the court. Whether you love her or hate her, there is no doubt that Serena Williams is fierce.

Even with her surprising loss at the U.S. Open, nothing could derail 2016 as Williams’ coronation year. Between launching a fashion line and tying Steffi Graf’s record for Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon, Williams has ascended to the status of a cultural icon: Her matches are attended by celebrity elite; her joyful confidence radiates alongside Beyoncé in the singer’s visual album “Lemonade”; and her muscular frame graces magazine covers.

According to Getty Images’ Director of Visual Trends Pam Grossman, Williams’ ascendance points to a broader movement.

“She shows womanhood in all of its complexity,” Grossman said. “Serena gets angry. She’s celebratory. She’s proud of herself. She wants to make a positive impact on the world. There are all these different facets of her, and she doesn’t apologize for any of them.”

Beyonce "The Formation World Tour" - Closing Night In East Rutherford

Her mere existence weeds out gender stereotypes in progressive spaces.

“In the 1980’s women in business were represented as masculine powerhouses in big shoulder pads, or the sexy stereotype with tight suits and cleavage. You’ve almost got that same stereotyping in sports now,” Rebecca Swift, who heads Getty’s partnership with the Women’s Sport Trust said. “You have the incredibly feminine, beautiful sportsperson or the more masculine, muscular aggressor. It’s the bit in between that’s really missing. And that requires storytelling.”

Williams’ story is about more than her body. At the heart of her impact is the ease of her comfort in her own skin. She has never been limited by our collective imagination. Athletes are expected to be silent machines, but Williams challenges everything from calls from line judges to the gender wage gap and police brutality. Women are expected to choose whether they are strong or feminine; Williams is always both. A player her age is expected to retire; Williams says she has five more years left. Outliers are expected to assimilate; Williams has never come close.

“She’s made us talk about gender and power, but it is exciting we’re mostly celebrating what she can do and how she’s choosing to live her life,” Grossman said. “I hope she moves us past this conversation of what women look like to celebrating what they do and who they are.”

 

Explore more images from the moments that defined 2016 at Getty Images’ 2016 in Focus digital experience.