It was a tough crowd out there … the story of my life. ~ Serena Williams
I once said that I am the most underestimated Grand Slam winner. Every article says “she overpowered her opponent.” It is a lot more than I never get credit for mental and it is kind of frustrating. ~ Serena Williams
When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle. ~ Frantz Fanon
She is Frank Bruno with lipstick. Bigger arms than Frank too. ~ Online comment
“I could not believe what came out of his mouth…he said some awful things… and as an African-American I’m not going to stand for it”, she said as she approached the umpire pointing in the direction of a middle-aged man sitting at the stadium. She continued, “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I had to do a double take. I think I hit a double-fault on that point.” After sitting down, she put the towel on her lap and spoke on, “He was harassing me throughout the match, and I should have said something sooner. He was saying things he shouldn’t have and it was totally unethical. It was derogatory.”
This incident took place in March 2007 during a match between Serena Williams and Lucie Safarova at the Sony Ericsson Miami Open. The middle-aged man watching the match had just yelled at Serena, saying, “Hit the ball into the net like any nigger would.” In response, Serena approached the umpire to complain and to have him ejected from the match. Six years after this event, the racial slurs directed at Serena still continue although they have become more polished and less obvious.
Williams is one of the finest players of any gender to have graced the game of tennis. She has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles (and counting), 13 Grand Slam doubles titles and 4 Olympic gold medals. She is the only human being to complete a career Golden Grand Slam in both singles and doubles. In addition, Williams is one of only two people to have ever won Grand Slam singles titles in three different decades and to have won each of the Grand Slam singles and doubles titles at least twice. Despite these achievements, Williams is quite possibly the most unloved, underestimated and under appreciated tennis player of all time.
Tennis, like most other sports, has had its fair share of “goodies and baddies”; the heroes and the villains. While it’s obvious that Williams falls into the baddie/villain category, unlike the angst directed at other “villains of the game” such as John McEnroe, the angst directed at Williams is not only troubling, but also sickening and unprecedented.
Why is this the case? Is it because Williams is evil or is it because she has a bad attitude? Is she wicked? Has she committed any serious crime? Otherwise, are there other sinister reasons for her to attract such vitriolic hatred in the Western Hemisphere? Can the hatred towards her be construed to be racist? If yes, what form of racism and who are the protagonists? Is Williams treated fairly, relative to her peers? What are the implications of the racial attitudes towards her? What can be done to curtail or minimize the hatred towards Williams?
WHY THE ATTACKS?
To get a clear understanding as to why Williams is loathed, one may have to pick up the history books and turn to the chapter on colonialism. When the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America were colonized, there emerged two types of colonized people. The first type comprised of those who accepted colonialism. They saw themselves in the image of the colonialist. In the French colonies, they were called Assimilée (one who could be assimilated into the French “superior” culture), in the Belgian colonies, they were known as Évolué (someone who has evolved), in the Portuguese colonies they were called “Civilisado” (one who is civilized) and in the Anglophone countries they were called the Colonized Elite. Like the biblical Lazarus, they ate the crumbs that fell down from their colonial masters’ table. They were subservient to the colonialists who loved them in return for the obeisance. They were trained in the colonialists’ etiquettes and owed their existence to their masters.
On the other hand, there was another type of colonized people who refused to accept colonialism. This group resisted their colonial masters and did not feel inferior to the colonialist. They were always in conflict with the colonizers because they believed that they did not owe their existence to the colonizers. These group of people were not interested in conforming to the colonialists’ way of life; all they wanted was freedom. Unlike the évolué, assimilée and civilisado, these nonconformists were feared and hated by the colonizer.
Williams can be described as a modern day non-évolué, non-assimilée and non-civilisado. Back in the days she would have probably been called a colonized native rather than a colonized elite because she would have refused to eat the crumbs that fell from the colonialist table. She is a bold and confident black lady who refuses to be shaped by the mores of the tennis fraternity. Williams does not owe her existence to the tennis establishment because she got to where she is today by hard work and tenacity. For a number of people, they can’t understand why Williams should be so sure of herself after all; “she should be grateful that she is even allowed to be playing the game, because the game is not meant for people like her.” Because of this self-assurance, many people detest her as they see her as a threat to the tennis world.
Another reason why Williams is always under attack is because her physique does not conform to the Western definition of how a woman’s physique should be like. Unlike other players on the tour, Williams is curvaceous. Before she started playing tennis, people were not accustomed to seeing a lady with African features playing and dominating the game of tennis. Since Williams came onto the scene there has been a fascination with her body because it does not fit the model we are used to seeing on the catwalks of the various fashion cities of the West.
Is this fascination with Williams’s body something new? Not at all. Once again, one needs to open the history book and turn to the chapter on Sarah Baartman to understand this fascination. When the colonialist first came into contact with Africans, they were intrigued with the African woman’s physique, which differed from that of their wives whom they often left at home. In 1810, a colonialist in South Africa convinced Sarah Baartman, a curvaceous South African lady, to relocate to Britain. He thought that bringing her to Britain would generate interest among the Brits who would be willing to pay to see Sarah’s body. When she got to Britain, she was put in a cage and displayed for the English spectators to look at her body. She was ridiculed and some spectators touched her buttocks and other parts of her body.
After being exhibited in Britain, she was taken to France where she became an object of scientific research. When she died in 1816, her body was displayed in a museum until her remains were taken back to South Africa in 2002.
Unfortunately, Williams has replaced Sarah Baartman as the “Noble Savage” of the 21st century. Besides the negative reports about Williams’s body in the Western media and the snide comments by tennis fans, some players on the tour have also resulted to ridiculing Williams’s curvaceous body. During an exhibition match between Caroline Wozniaki and Maria Sharapova, Wozniaki stuffed her bra and skirt with towels to imitate Serena’s body. In another exhibition match, Novak Djokovic did a similar thing. In contrast, when tennis players imitate other players, they imitate other aspects such as the way players hold their rackets, how they scream, adjust their clothes or hit the ball instead of focusing on their physique.
Is it fair that Williams should be treated as sub-human because she is not blonde? Is it fair that Williams should be seen as a noble savage because she is not skinny? Is it fair that Williams should be regarded as inferior because she is not blue-eyed? Is it fair that Williams should be compared to Mike Tyson because she is not “flat”? Would all these criticisms stop if Williams changed into a Barbie doll?
To understand another reason why Williams is such a hate figure, we must again open the history book and this time turn to the chapter on Hitler and the 1936 Olympics. Hitler saw blacks as inferior and wanted to use the 1936 Olympics as a showcase to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. Contrary to Hitler’s expectation, Jesse Owens, an African-American, became the star of the Olympics, winning four gold medals and thereby dispelling Hitler’s racial theory. After the Berlin Olympics, racial theories about the inferiority of blacks began to evolve. As black people began to excel in certain sports like athletics, football and basketball, the theory was revised. Rather than attributing this excellence to hard work, scientists instead suggested that blacks were genetically suited to excel in sports. In sports where blacks did not excel such as golf and cricket, some people suggested that these sports required a high degree of intelligence rather than power and due to the intellectual inferiority of black people, they were incapable of excelling in these “intellectual sports”. This was the prevailing notion until one “Mr. Tiger Woods” began to dominate golf and the West Indies team dominated the game of cricket in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tennis, like swimming, rugby, golf and cricket, is a sport dominated by white people. Prior to the arrival of the Williams sisters, there had only been three black Grand Slam tennis champions since the first Grand Slam took place at Wimbledon in 1877. A look at the images on the Wimbledon Champions Hall of Fame from 1877 reveals that, pre-2000, the only black face among the ladies’ champions was that of Althea Gibson, the 1957 and 1958 Champion.
This was the backdrop before Serena and Venus Williams came onto the scene. Once they started playing, they rewrote that tennis history. Unfortunately, for a number of people, this change was an unwelcome development. The people resistant to change began to say, “Blacks are intellectually inferior, so they are not supposed to dominate a sport that requires the use of intelligence.” These people live in the 21st century but have a 19th-century mindset, so cannot understand why two black sisters have won 10 of the last 13 Wimbledon Championships. To them, Serena and Venus have no business playing the game and should be mowing the Wimbledon grass instead of collecting millions of pounds in Wimbledon winning earnings. To justify the earlier racial theories about blacks in sports, these people often suggest that the sisters excel because of their power.
As Williams continues to dispel the preconceived notion about blacks in sports, the suppressed prejudice, which was hidden, has finally come out to the surface and that is what we are seeing today.
EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES
Because Williams has been so dominant in the last decade, those uncomfortable with her success have come up with a number of excuses to downplay her accomplishment. These excuses come not only from the media, but also from fellow players and tennis fans. The next couple of paragraphs detail some of these excuses.
- a) Tennis fans that are hostile to Serena often attribute her dominance to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED). Although they have no basis for such claims, they have developed a syllogism along the following lines:
Premise 1: Williams is dominant in the game of tennis.
Premise 2: Lance Armstrong was dominant in cycling.
Premise 3: Lance Armstrong used PED.
Conclusion: Therefore, Williams uses PED.
Some Serenaphobes suggest that the reason why Williams was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism in 2011 was because of PED, even though the disease occurs when a blood clot gets wedged in an artery in the lungs. They fail to acknowledge that Williams is one of the most tested players on the tour and has never failed a drugs test.
- b) The Serenaphobes also downplay Williams’s achievement by arguing that her dominance is because of a weak field. They fail to acknowledge that Williams has played in three different eras and has dominated each one. Earlier in her career, she played the likes of Monica Seles and Steffi Graff and had a head-to-head count of 4-1 and 1-1 respectively (it is important to note that Williams played these two legends of the game when they were at the tail end of their careers).
In the second stage of her career, Williams faced the likes of Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, and Jennifer Capriati and had a superior head to head count of 8-6,10-4,7-2 and10-7 respectively. Now in her third era, she is dominating the likes of Sharapova, Azarenka, Li Na and Radwanska. She holds a superior 62-7 head-to-head count against the current top ten seeded players. It is important to note that Azarenka and Sharapova who Williams has a winning head-to-head count of 12-2 and 14-2 respectively are formidable players who would have made an impact in the previous eras of other tennis legends. So for Williams to continuously outclass these two good players is a testament to her greatness.
- c) It is often suggested that because of Williams’s domination, the game of women’s tennis has become boring. This is quite an interesting argument as over time certain players have dominated their era. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were the dominant forces in ladies’ tennis, winning a total of 36 Grand Slam titles between them. In the late 1980s to the 1990s Steffi Graff dominated the game, winning a total of 22 Grand Slam titles. However, despite the domination of tennis by these individuals, there was no suggestion at the time that the game was boring; on the contrary, since Williams began to excel we now hear comments like, “I’m so tired of Serena. She’s already proven her worth so it’s time for her to stop being greedy and give way to new blood. Tennis will be more exciting if we can’t predict who’s going to win.”
There are now suggestions that the ladies’ game should be extended to five sets because of the ease at which Williams wins or that women should not earn the same prize money as men. One wonders why all these calls for lesser pay for women and increase in match duration are becoming louder.
When Steffi Graff defeated Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 French Open final 6-0, 6-0 where were the calls that the game of women’s tennis was boring?
When Navratilova won nine Wimbledon titles, where were the calls that women should be playing the best of five sets rather than the best of three sets?
When Chris Evert won 125 consecutive matches on clay, where were the calls that the competition was weak? I guess it’s a case of different strokes for different folks.
- d) One of the most common arguments used to undermine Williams’s accomplishment is the suggestion that she has an unfair advantage due to her power. Blacks have always been stereotyped as strong, aggressive and angry, and Williams being an African-American is not immune from these stereotypes. The media, tennis fans and even some tennis players have overemphasized her power as her number one weapon.
While Williams possesses the fastest serve in the history of female tennis, this is not a sufficient and necessary condition to excel in tennis. For instance, some of the biggest servers in men’s tennis include Andy Roddick, Goran Ivanisevic, John Isner, Milos Raonic and Juan Del Potro; however, in spite of the power of their serves, they only have a combined total of three Grand Slam titles. On the women’s tour, besides Serena and Venus Williams, there are six other women who have served faster than 124.2 mph and with the exception of Ana Ivanovic, none of the rest have won any Grand Slam title.
While the spotlight is on Williams’s so-called power game, the media and tennis pundits downplay Maria Sharapova’s playing style which involves using her power to outhit her opponents from the back of the court. However, if one reviews the media reportage on these two players, one begins to notice a pattern.
For Serena, one reads headlines like:
‘Incredible’ Serena Williams powers to another title
Super Serena Williams slays Dominika Cibulkova in Rome
Williams outmuscles Sharapova
In contrast, reports regarding Sharapova’s victory often have the following headlines:
Maria Sharapova defeats Sloane Stephens to advance
Sharapova rallies past Jankovic at French Open
Maria Sharapova shrugs off Victoria Azarenka to set up French Open final date with Serena Williams
The media conveniently ignore other aspects of Williams’s game such as her mental toughness, ground strokes and accuracy of serve on the “T”.
Related to the overemphasis on Williams’s power are suggestions that her physique gives her an undue advantage. When Maria Sharapova was asked for her thoughts on Williams’s serve, Sharapova – who has a 3-inch height advantage over Williams – responded by saying, “I think if I was built like Serena I hope I’d be able to hit a big serve like that, too.” In an earlier competition at Madrid, when asked how Williams compares with other top players she had faced in her career, Sharapova said,
“She is certainly the strongest, physically the most powerful and the biggest hitter.” In an article about Williams published in the Rolling Stone Magazine, the journalist wrote, “Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”
A number of Serenaphobes have also made derogatory remarks about Williams’s gender on online forums like:
“Must be all that excess testosterone making her so irritable.”
“Why is a man disguised as a woman allowed to pretend to play under the guise of a female aka Williams in this Tournament”?
“It’s a man.”
“The Williams sisters have been a disgrace to tennis since they first appeared. Instead of talent and finesse, they have nothing but pure BRUTE force. Somebody should do a DNA test”
While Williams has been on the receiving end from, fellow tennis players, the media and tennis fans, the most rancorous Serenaphobes are the online commentators who hide under the cloak of anonymity to spit venom from their keyboards. Unfortunately, the media have not done a thorough job in moderating these comments even though these websites usually state, “libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.” Here are some samples of online comments about Williams made on websites which claim to moderate abusive comments:
“You can take the athlete out of the Ghetto, but you can’t take the Ghetto out of the athlete, sadly.”
“Jaws in a dress.”
“Ugly inside and out!”
“She is an Amazon. No class in her or her family. Tired of reading about them.”
At the conclusion of the 2013 French Open tournament, there were two feature articles published on the BBC Tennis home page about Williams’s and Nadal’s victories. Reading the comments on both articles reveals a lot about the hatred toward Williams. Nadal’s article had 296 comments while Williams’s article had 335 comments. So far, so good.
Of the 296 comments relating to the Nadal article, there were only two moderated comments (0.68% of comments) whereas the Serena Williams article had 77 moderated comments (23% of comments). One wonders what was written in the original comments that warranted the BBC to replace them with the phrase “all these users posts have been removed” and “this comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules.”
Even though Williams is the most vilified tennis player on the planet, she is not in uncharted territory. She follows a long list of black sporting icons that had to endure racial prejudices as the price of their success. She follows in the footsteps of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight-boxing champion, who once said, “I’m black… They never let me forget it.” She follows in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, who once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” She follows in the footsteps of Tommie Smith, the 1968 US 200m Olympic Champion, who once said, “If I do something good then I am American, but if I do something bad then I am a Negro!”
Unlike the racism which the likes of Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali and Althea Gibson had to endure, Williams faces a 21st-century form of racism which can be described as unconscious racism. So what is the difference between conscious racism and unconscious racism?
Conscious racism occurs when a person commits a racist act fully aware of the implication of his/her action, whereas unconscious racism occurs when the perpetrator of the racist act lacks an awareness of the effects of his/her action on other people. While conscious racism can be described as spoken, acknowledged, direct, exposed and not so subtle, unconscious racism is often unspoken, denied, indirect, hidden and subtle. Surprisingly, people who engage in unconscious racism are not aware of it and will often come up with excuses to reassure themselves like ”some of my best friends are black”; ”I once dated a black girl”; or “I can’t be racist because I send aid to Africa.”
So what can we make of the hostility towards Williams? The answer depends on the classification of the protagonist. Fellow players on the tour who mock Williams’s physique will say that they are “having a laugh” or are “just joking”; the media who often have nothing good to say about Williams will say that they are doing their job; the tennis fans will say they have a right to support whoever they want to support; while the anonymous online contributors will argue that they are only expressing their opinions. However, if one is to be true to oneself, one has to acknowledge that Williams has become the poster child for racial prejudice in tennis. Some may say, “Here we go again, he is bringing up the race card” or “Blacks are always playing the victim.” Others may suggest, “the fault lies with Williams; after all, Sloane Stephens, Dustin Brown and Wilfred Tsonga do not attract such hatred”, even though we know that these tennis players are not as dominant as Williams.
Is it then right to argue that anyone who does not like or support Williams is a racist? Absolutely not. There are many people who do not support Williams for genuine reasons. This sort of stance is acceptable; however, what is not acceptable is when people’s dislike towards Williams crosses the race line.
In spite of the continuous hostility against Williams it does not seem to bother her. This could be because of her upbringing. According to her father, Richard Williams, though Serena was born in the 80’s, “ …she was taught like a child who was being brought up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and that’s why today if you see Venus and Serena, and we’re at a tennis tournament, and you boo us, it doesn’t hurt us, because we were taught for things like that many, many years ago, we came up in the ’40s and the ’50s.” Even though Williams has been booed at Indian Wells, jeered at Roland Garros and cheered at Wimbledon in response to her defeat, she continues to rewrite history.
Although Williams seems unfazed by the racial attacks against her, does it mean that these attacks should continue? Certainly not. If not, then what are the implications of these attacks against Williams? One potential impact is that it could discourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the West from taking part in the tennis. A young black girl might ask, ”Why bother to play tennis at the highest level, if I am going to face the ordeal that faces?” Another impact is that there could be a risk to her life. As Williams continues to get better with age, there are many people who are not happy about it and there is a remote possibility that a rogue fan could try to harm her to stop her from achieving more greatness on the tennis court, just like the Steffi Graf fan who attacked Monica Seles in 1993. Some may think drawing comparison with the deranged fan that stabbed Monica is sensational. However, when one reads the vitriolic comments directed at Williams, there should be cause for concern.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Above, I have detailed the factors contributing to the hostility directed towards Williams, the historical background of these attacks, the protagonists, the forms of racism and the implications of these racial attacks. Is it possible to completely end the insults directed at Williams? Can these prejudices against Williams be finally stopped? Can one pick up the newspaper or read online comments about Williams without ever seeing the vitriolic statements about her? Not likely. However, certain measures can be taken to minimize the continuous barrage against her.
Firstly, journalists should be more responsible and professional in their coverage of Williams. They shouldn’t let their unconscious bias or prejudices becloud their professional calling. If they are unsure of how to respect Williams, they could accord her the same level of respect that they give to other players on the tour.
Furthermore, online editors should be more diligent in ensuring that online comments about Williams adhere to the house rules. They could take a cue from the BBC Online Sports page, which effectively moderates online comments about her.
Secondly, fellow players on the tour should be respectful and refrain from reinforcing racial stereotypes when speaking about or imitating Williams.
Thirdly, the tennis establishment should adopt a zero tolerance towards racism. The International Tennis Federation (ITF), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), in addition to the tennis associations around the world, should develop a comprehensive anti-racism strategy that should apply to all players on the tour. The anti-racism policy could specify what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and players that breach the rules should be punished. These bodies should also consider setting up racial awareness campaigns to educate fans on the need to be racially tolerant. This point is very essential because as we continue to see non-white players join the tour, it would be a shame if the racial expletives we are accustomed to hearing on the football field start to surface in tennis venues.
While Williams has been welcomed with open arms in Africa, one wonders if she will ever be accepted in the West for her contribution to the game of tennis or if her fate will be like that of other black icons who were never accepted in the West during their active years, only to become global icons when they were no longer in their prime. History is full of examples of black icons who were recognized in the West when they were dead, old or infirm. Martin Luther King was despised when he led the civil rights movement, only to be idolized upon his death; Nelson Mandela was hated and called a terrorist because of his refusal to accept Apartheid, only to become a global elder statesman when he was frail and old; Muhammad Ali was vilified when he took a stand not to go to Vietnam and spoke against racism, only to be revered when he was struck down with Parkinson’s Disease. Hopefully, it will not take too long for Williams to be appreciated in the West.
To rephrase what Winston Churchill once said many years ago, never in the history of tennis has someone been so much hated by so many and loved by so few. While not everyone who hates Williams is a racist, it is probable that every racist that knows of Williams most likely hates her. She is a human being who happens to be black. She is only playing a game which she enjoys and is good at. Like other players on the tour, she is an entertainer and that is why we pay money to watch her play.
However, because she happens to be good at the game of tennis, must her gender be questioned? Because she happens to be good at the game of tennis, must she be accused of using PED? Because she happens to be good at the game of tennis, must her physique be mocked?
Finally, Williams is 33 going on 34 and her playing days are numbered. Once she hangs up her racket, we will no longer see her play competitive tennis. Before she hangs up her racket, let us cast aside our prejudices and marvel as one of the world’s finest players plays her game.
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