This weekend saw Serena Williams land her 20th Grand slam title at the age of 33. An amazing feat which sees her in the women’s tennis pantheon. Only two grand slam wins in the modern era behind Steffi Graf. Given her dominance and actual improvement in play since she turned 30, one cannot see that record lasting for too long. And yet with this amazing track record of tennis equivalent to at least 1 tournament a year since she won her first grand slam the American media, and dare I say the public seem to have a long tradition of issues with a lady, who on paper is their most accomplished living athlete.
Now it is easy to make assumptions on the reasons as to why this is, but I bet if a writer or journalist of better credentials than I dug a bit deeper, there would be a list of examples that when held up to the light of day show that there is an unfair bias towards her.
Take Indian Wells for example. This year was the first time in fourteen years that Serena decided to return to play there. When she was last there her sister Venus had to pull out of the semi final with a knee injury. The crowd felt their Dad had fixed this so Serena could be in the final and she and her family faced ungamely booing (and some unproven colourful language) from the crowd. She played and beat Kim Clijsters in the final, but until this year she refused to play there. Venus still refuses to play there.
There are those who question Venus and Serena’s Dad accusations that members of the crowd had shouted out racial slurs, but heck that stuff cut so deep she refused to play there. Watching this video, of what happened to her as a 19 year old, this must of hurt. You don’t boo in tennis. People accused her and Venus of playing the race card by not attending. Journalists accused them of being petty and even questioning the whole inference of race accusations. For me I was glad when they literally said fuck you by not turning up.
Then there are issues around her physique. This flim flams from those who say she is too masculine. Then there are those who will question her femininity. From her on court cat suits to observations about mini dresses, low plungers and swimsuits that she wears off court. The same kind of people and media who would spend acres drooling over Sharapova or her media darling predecessor Kournikova. (Did she actually win anything on the court?)
It is easy, in fact way too easy to limit this to an accusation of gender bias and race but let’s tackle these issues head on.
Andy Roddick, Jimmy Connors and of course the infamous John McEnroe all had major tantrums on court and yet they were still feted in the media. Is it just ok for men to have tantrums and must women just be ladylike at every turn? Funnily enough John McEnroe, who is a fan of Serena, once laid into Venus and Serena as not having respect for others in the locker room. John McEnroe taking the moral high ground given his history seems funny, but the reality having their femininity challenged must be a grind. Serena has in the main, over fourteen years, taken this with grace. Yes she flipped on the attendant in the US open and her fierce ambition has seen her get upset at losing, but its funny how often people will avoid or not report the many times she has been incredibly gracious and encouraging to those who have lost to her.
I remember one time reading a UK tabloid when Williams was facing Sharapova.
The title read “Beauty and the Beast”.
Are you fucking kidding me?
What the heck does that even mean?
Do people not even realise what kind of gender stereotypes people are reinforcing with those kind of titles? Or maybe they do.
Any tennis purist could tell you that players like Lindsay Davenport, Martina Navratilova and even Monica Seles had power serves. What Serena and Venus showed however was a mental strength to match their physical. Constantly questioning how she should act like a woman is part of a wider narrative that media both in the US and UK (I can’t speak for other countries) have of trying to explain away her skill.
Writers like Jon Entine who wrote Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, went to extraordinary lengths to suggest that Serena and Venus are arrogant. They need to respect people more. This coached in a load of racial assumptions about black physique and stamina. This kind of belittling is not a one off, but part of a series of articles and commentary by those in the tennis media. When Serena missed a season because of a blood clot on her lung you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief and then as if to piss them all off she came back and started to rewrite the rule book again.
This idealism about what women are to be like is not limited to strength but also to beauty. Last year Forbes noted that Williams earned $22m. $11m from tournaments and $11m from endorsements. Comparatively Sharapova earned $24m. $2m from tournaments and $22m from endorsements! Yep Sharapova earned as much from not playing tennis as Williams did for her whole year. Of course there are always going to be ideals about who sells product or not, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see which ideal of woman hood mainstream favours.
Which leads us on to race. Now as outspoken as I am about racial inequality, I am also cognisant that because of the emotive nature of the subject people, will get their back up and we need to tread cautiously. But let’s not pretend here. Let’s keep it straight.
America is a nation built on the back of slavery and inequality. Its record of incarcerations, police killings and educational inequality thrives off the back of systematic racial profiling and inequality. Even with a president of mixed heritage in office, so many of its citizens are hardcore believers that their Commander in Chief is a Muslim loving, communist implant by way of Kenya. Institutional America does not favour a black role model who does not side with the ideology of what they believe to be right.
Look at the way they treated Muhammad Ali in his prime. And now he is considered the greatest. GTFOH.
Martin Luther King. Dude absolutely tore the system a new one in the last year of his life. Speeches condemning Vietnam and inequality. King was bumped and now all we hear is about his dream and that he was a man of peace. Are you crazy?
The American psyche want us to cosy up to simpler manageable narratives of black people. Bill Cosby. Will Smith. Morgan Freeman. Oprah. Condoleeza Rice. Colin Powell and of course the current flavour of the month, Ben Carson. All those who succeeded through the system. Icons of success. Who regardless of being from challenging backgrounds rose up and became part of the American Dream. Yay!
It is not the done thing to flip the bird on that script on the head and challenge the system.
Enter Richard and Oracene Williams.
This outspoken and vocal couple from Compton, LA. Telling the world that their girls are going to be the greatest even before they were, echoing the sentiments and mindset of the boxer formerly knowns as Cassius Clay. Teaching their daughters that they were entering a world where their contemporaries, the reporters and those that run the show were and still are very different from them. That even if they were to succeed as outliers that a whole big world out there would have an issue with them.
They took the whole script about tennis and dominated it.
They realised what their Dad had said about what they were capable of achieving. Winning every damn thing they were put up to. Believing they were champions, they were great. They played their heart out recognising the sacrifice that had been made to get here, and even moreso played less than most of the other players on the circuit and still kicked butt.
You see it in the media text. Arrogant. Swagger. Agrgressive. Just give it time before someone reports Serena’s winning ways as thuggish. And then people will tell you that when you raise this, when you challenge people with the reams of evidence that repeat this phrase that oops you are playing the race card. Heck if that is one of the only decks you’ve been given what can you say if someone pulls it out? Interestingly both Serena and her sister have never been ones to talk about race in that manner. They leave it to bloggers and writers like myself to actually say it as we see it. Without apology. They let their tennis do the talking.
Serena ignores the accusations of playing loud tennis whilst the likes of many contemporaries scream like they are trying to out audition Jenna Jameson.
She ignores the accusations of being rude by hugging and consoling components at the net after wins.
She will get down and boogie regardless of whether media players will call it a gang dance. A gang dance that is until it is appropriated by Miley or Ziggy Azelia.
She will use the opportunity in her adopted country to give gratitude to both the crowd and her opponent in French.
She will continue to rock.
America and much of western media has been disparaging towards her but Serena can rest assure that history will remember her, not for just being on of the greatest women tennis players ever, but in fact when we look at her record she actually is the greatest tennis player of all time. And she is still far from retiring.
She will know that a hardcore set of fans will continue to support her, even with her flaws, as she continues to blaze a trail into history. Rewriting it, one serve and one baseline return at a time. Her story will be told long after her critics lose their relevance.
I guess she probably knows this already and goes to sleep at night safe in that knowledge.