The presentation of this year’s Brand Visionary award—part of Adweek’s annual Brand Genius event—was a literal passing of the torch. Last year’s winner, Anna Wintour, presented this year’s award to Serena Williams at Wednesday night’s Brand Genius awards gala. And she did so with a moving tribute, not only to the tennis champion’s many achievements on the court throughout her decades-long career, but her personal strength, too.
“When I first met Serena Williams, she was a tennis champion of unbelievable perseverance,” Wintour said. “Now, at 37, she is still a tennis champion of unbelievable persistence and power—also, a wife and a mother and a role model for millions of women.”
Wintour said Williams “seems already to come from another, better world.”
She commended Williams’ activism, particularly for speaking out about “the horror of gun violence” as well as for taking action on the “menace of domestic violence.” She also lauded Williams for opening up publicly about the the dangers she faced in her own childhood, noting the difficulty she had in finding safe spaces to practice tennis during her early years in the sport.
Wintour, an avid tennis fan, noted that Williams has become “one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors” and “a figure so much larger than the game she has mastered.”
But with that incredible achievement comes a heightened public profile that can lead to unfair treatment in the spotlight. Wintour noted this as she discussed Williams’ much-discussed loss at this year’s U.S. Open, where public controversy swirled around a referee’s actions and her reaction to them.
“Because she’s always out in front, she’s often the first to be jumped on in moments of tension, as we saw during the U.S. Open,” said Wintour to a resounding applause. “What made me the most proud in that moment was the way Serena celebrated the victory of Naomi Osaka, a young player who grew up in awe of Serena. It was a win larger than the match.”
Before a video highlighting Williams’ accomplishments started to roll and Wintour was able to welcome Williams onstage to receive the Brand Visionary award, she once again offered her compliments to the 23-time Grand Slam champion as an icon who “bestows confidence and light on everything she touches,” before issuing her final praise.
“She has always been a No. 1 tennis player,” she said. “But in the year of Serena, and with this award tonight, we celebrate an even more impressive feat: becoming a woman far greater than her multitude of victories.”