Even if you don’t keep up with tennis, you might have seen Nike’s new “Just Do It” commercial featuring Serena Williams. The video is a compilation of archival footage narrated by her father, Richard. If you havent seen it, get ready for goosebumps. Along with brilliant sound design and editing, we particularly admire the sociopolitical context that the ad lends to Serena’s story- especially after the controversy surrounding this year’s U.S. Open final,
“This is you at the U.S. Open,” Richard says. But he’s not talking to the tennis superstar that we know today. Richard is bent over coaching a young Serena- and she is clearly not at the U.S. Open. In this opening shot, there is a fence thrust between the father daughter pair and us, the voyeurs. The fence emphasizes the profound distance between Serena- a young black girl from Compton- and the prestigious Grand Slam tournament in New York City.
To be a woman and black in America is to live a life of navigating fences. Black girls aren’t supposed to play tennis. Black girls from poor neighborhoods certainly aren’t supposed to compete at the U.S. Open. Or win it once, let alone 6 times. It is no mistake that the first time we see Serena in this video she is behind a fence. But young Serena isn’t looking at the fences. She’s looking at the net- and listening to her father. “This is you,” he tells her. “Good service motion.”
The young girl’s first serve launches us through time and across the coast, straight into the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. This is Serena, unapologetically herself, at her fifth U.S. Open tournament. A rising superpower, Serena’s dad continues to coach her through the point. At :20, Serena somehow makes it to a ball in far right court, reaching so far that she stretches into the splits. She wins the point, smiles and laughs along with her younger self. This particular cut is such a poignant illustration of the human joy- the inner child in everyone- that illuminates our meaning and purpose. We don’t just respect Serena. We relate to her. We love her.
Halfway through the ad, the story arc is clear. Winning 23 Grand Slam titles doesn’t come without adversity. At :30, she loses a point. On a larger scale, Serena has persevered through more than just a few tough games, sets and matches. On top of the normalized, everyday discrimination that comes with black womanhood, Serena has faced racist and sexist attacks on the world’s largest stages throughout her career.
“Last time, make sure you’re controlling that ball on every shot,” her father says. The young girl is frustrated with herself. The woman is frustrated with the world we live in, and the way that it treats women- especially women of color. In true fashion, the superstar only puts her head down for a moment before returning the point. Her signature battle cry reverberates through the arena.
At :45, Serena and her father celebrate winning a big point. Time and space collapse into a trancendant moment. The girl, the woman and her father rejoice together in triumph.
This year Serena was not alone; there were two women of color in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open. Naomi Osaka, a 19-year old Japanese-Haitian woman born in the city for which she was named, actually beat her idol to win her first ever Grand Slam title.“When I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again,” Osaka said of their post-game embrace. The girl from Compton and the girl from Osaka climbed into the world’s biggest tennis arena and embraced over the net. But this year’s championship wasn’t the fairytale ending it could have been- for Williams, or for Osaka.
The game is all over the news, but not in praise of diversity, or Osaka’s big win. The buzz is mostly sociopolitical. Dozens of opinion pieces have followed a final match that was plagued with big penalties- one of which Serena called “a sexist remark.” Billie Jean King, the tennis legend from whom the National Tennis Center got its name, agreed and praised Serena for calling out injustice on the court once again. There is still much work to be done in the sport of Tennis and in the world. Fittingly, the Nike ad doesn’t end with victory. It cuts back to the young black girl from Compton behind the fence- who puts her head down and gets back to work.
We love this ad because it doesn’t just tell us Serena William’s story- in only 60 seconds, it touches on pressing sociopolitical issues and uses visual language to shine a light on the human story. It makes you feel and know. It finds a truth that words can’t always discover alone.