This week, as Serena Williams begins anew her quest to win the tennis Grand Slam, the holy grail of the yellow fuzzy ball sport, it is instructive to reflect on some of her past glories. She ended 2015 still ranked number one in the world (250 weeks), and barring some catastrophic series of circumstances, should end 2016 in the same position, given she is so far ahead of the number 2 player, Maria Sharapova. Rather quietly, she also ended 2015 as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, a singular distinction only two other female tennis players have achieved—Billie Jean King in 1972, after beating Bobby Riggs in the classic male-female match, and Chris Evert in 1976. The only other tennis player—male or female—to win the award was Arthur Ashe in 1992. The award is not only for athletic excellence or domination, it is also about one’s impact on society.

Interestingly, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, nor Andy Murray, the current top four in the men’s game, have ever won the award. Neither did Steffi Graf, the current record holder for the most grand slam major tennis tournaments won in the open-tennis era.

Serena also was the first African American woman to win the award, and the first individual female athlete in any sport to win it since distance runner Mary Decker did so in 1983.

One significant factor in Serena’s favor was her decision to show magnanimous grace in returning to Indian Wells, Calif., to play in last year’s tournament. As we all remember, in 2001, she and Venus vowed to never play there again after suffering through one of the ugliest racial incidents in modern tennis history. She and Venus, both of whom were at the top of their games, were scheduled to play each other again in the semi-finals of the tournament that year. Venus, however, came down with knee problems and had to withdraw. The crowd heard and expanded a rumor that Richard Williams, their coach-father, had instructed Venus not to play, so Serena would advance this time. To the crowd, the fix was in, and no amount of truth-telling would dissuade them. When Venus and her father showed up in the stands, the fans booed lustily and for quite a while. Richard said he heard more than one person shout, “nier!” When Serena arrived on-court to play, the crowd booed her incessantly, and cheered every error she made. Serena also said she heard “nier!” hurled at her. She won the match anyway and the tournament. But the family swore off ever returning again.

This year, after a long family discussion and a deep inward search for the right thing to do, Serena decided to forgive, but not forget the incident she returned to the tournament after 14 years of absence. She was overwhelmingly cheered by the crowd this time and welcomed back, providing a sense of healing for all sides. Neither Richard nor Venus has yet followed suit.

Unbeknownst to many of her fans, including this writer, was the information provided in the Sports Illustrated lead story about Serena. Apparently, Ms. Williams, emulating Oprah, decided to use her wealth and prestige to help some young people in a long-term way. She sponsored and founded two new secondary schools in Kenya, in an area in which the custom is for girls not to get an education beyond primary school and to marry at around age 14. She ordered that a significant portion of the students be girls. Last year, one of the schools produced the first two students out of that region to be college-eligible. In the U.S., Serena has financed full-ride college education for six young people who aren’t members of her immediate family, and is also financially supporting at least 12 others in college at the same time. Most impressively, she has been the first successful athlete to openly support the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that helps get improper convictions (based on racial prejudice, abuse of the mentally ill etc.) of poor people overturned. Since 1989, said the SI article, the organization has gotten more than 110 death sentence convictions overturned. Serena has both donated cash and sponsored fundraising activities for the group.

The Sportsperson of the Year award is for an all-around sportsperson—a full-bodied super athlete and outstanding citizen. Serena well represent us at that level. Long may she reign.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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