The honour - last won by actor Gal Gadot in 2017 - didn't sit well with a number of ardent Serena fans, who took to social media to tear into GQ for placing quotation marks around the word "woman".
As recently as this May year, Williams told Harpers Bazaar magazine: "People would say I was born a guy, all because of my arms, or because I'm strong".
Some of the Twitterati claimed the quotation marks were the least questionable aspect of the cover, and gave the fashion mag a dressing down over its choice of Williams for the accolade given her infamous outburst during her US Open final defeat to Naomi Osaka earlier this year. The typography for the cover was actually handwritten by designer Virgil Abloh, who uses quotation marks in his designs.
Mick Rouse, who per his Twitter bio is a GQ research manager, noted the word was handwritten by US fashion designer Virgil Abloh.
There was no immediate comment from Williams, GQ or Abloh. She spoke to the magazine about her future plans, Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court appointment and being a black woman in America in 2018.
The social media buzz was off base, considering the magazine tried to explain it beforehand, but it taps into a hot button issue not only in today's society but in Williams' career.
In February, Williams told CNN she nearly died giving birth to her daughter last year, yet within months she was back training and returned to the sport earlier this year, reaching both the Wimbledon and US Open finals. It has been said I don't belong in Women's sports - that I belong in Men's - because I look stronger than many other women do. Williams has spoken in the past about being called a man or shamed for her muscular body, Today notes.