LAST Sunday, Serena Williams edged one step closer to becoming the greatest female tennis player in the history of the game.

Her sixth Wimbledon victory moved her to within one win of Steffi Graf’s record of 22 major titles and considering that the American has won the last four slams, it seems almost certain that she will surpass Graf’s total. Yet the pervading narrative that accompanies Williams wherever she goes is one which deems it necessary to continually comment on her body as well as her tennis.

Williams has been body-shamed on the internet incessantly throughout her career but it is generally assumed that the print media are at least a fraction more responsible and balanced. Not so, as it turns out. On the eve of Williams’ Wimbledon victory, the New York Times published an article entitled Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition, with the tag-line "Serena Williams has a muscular frame. Her rivals choose not to emulate her physique". For a newspaper quite so highly-respected as the New York Times to publish such a derogatory piece towards the world No.1 is nothing short of remarkable.

The journalist in question, Ben Rothenberg, spoke to numerous female tennis players about their body shape and body image and wrote about the fact that many female players actively alter their training to avoid bulking-up. From the very beginning of his article, the insinuation was that no other player would want to have as muscular or as athletic a physique as Williams, describing the American as having “large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years”.

The world No.16, Andrea Petkovic, described how she loathes seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands because this is when her arm muscles appear the most bulging. It makes her feel “unfeminine” she says. And Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of world No.7, Agnieszka Radwanska, is quoted as saying, “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10 because, first of all, she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

These are astonishing attitudes, particularly that of Radwanska’s coach, to insinuate that because his player has a slighter frame than Williams, she is more feminine. Williams is one of the greatest athletes, male or female, of all time. Her athleticism has changed tennis forever and her success, as well as her longevity, is as a result of her being so physically superior to her competitors. The reluctance of her peers to try to emulate Williams’ physique, as Rothenberg’s article suggests, is perhaps why they are so unsuccessful in comparison to the 33 year-old and why none of them have a winning record over Williams. Few even have a victory over her to their name.

The backlash against the New York Times was as rapid as it was severe with accusations of sexism as well as racism being levelled at the newspaper. While the piece has been, quite rightly, derided, the bigger issue is that it seems acceptable to publish an article that supports female body hatred and fuels the obsession with the "perfect" female body-shape.

Williams is supremely athletic, of that there is no question. But why is this, even for one second, considered a problem? Clearly it should not be an issue – but it is. It remains unacceptable for a female athlete to have a body that does not conform to the stereotypical idea of female beauty, even though Williams is one of the most inspirational and successful women in world. There is a realisation now that young girls idolising size-zero models is an unhealthy obsession but Williams, the antithesis of a stick-thin supermodel, is impugned because she is not "dainty" enough. Rolling Stone magazine likened the American to “one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas”, which highlights perfectly what the general perception of a female athlete at her physical peak is.

Serena herself is not only happy with her grand-slam titles and the utter dominance that she exerts over the women’s game, but also her body, saying, “I’m really happy with my body type and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me.” While I’m sure that Williams’ 21 grand-slam titles soften the blow of the criticism, there is a wider picture which must be considered. Few people would disagree that more young girls playing sport and leading active lifestyles is a good thing yet the subliminal message that percolates in society contradicts this. It is highlighted by the comments towards Williams: we want girls and women to be strong but not too strong; fit but not too fit; athletic but not too athletic.

In watching Williams play tennis over the last 15 years, we have all witnessed one of the most astonishing athletes the world has ever seen. She may set records that will never be beaten. So stop trying to demean her with sexist, ignorant and hidebound attitudes.