Yesterday, I tuned in, as I have done nearly every summer since I was nine or ten years old, to watch the finals of the U.S. Open. Serena Williams was vying for her 15th Grand Slam title against Australian player Sam Stosur.
As I tuned in, I steeled myself for the endless stream of racist commentary from the sportscasters, of whom Mary Carillo, Chris Evert, and Darren Cahill are the chief offenders.
All honest tennis players and stans will admit that the Williams Sisters have transformed the game of women’s tennis. They have brought power and speed to bear in ways that used to be relegated to the men’s game. With their power serves, speed, and willingness to chase down and make impossible shots, the Sisters also upped the physical fitness requirements for champions.
When asked about 3 years ago how the Williams Sisters had transformed the game, Darren Cahill offered rather hesitantly, “they have opened the doors to people from all walks of life.” Really? That’s it? Tennis is more colorful now that the Williams Sisters have been a part of it? Thanks for the magnanimity, Darren.
But it is the female commentators who make me want to spit nails. Mary Carillo and occasional commentator and tennis legend Chris Evert are the worst of them all. Mary Carillo vacillates between loving Serena—now, anyway—and criticizing her. In the early part of their careers, the sisters winning game was attributed to their powerful bodies. But they were frequently accused of “lacking strategy,” “not thinking about their shots,” and “relying on their ‘natural athleticism.” Whey they started coming to the net and winning, their success was attributed yet again to their “natural athletic ability.” The Williams Sisters were represented as hypermasculine, unattractive women overpowering dainty white female tennis players (although Jennifer Capriati, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are anything but dainty.) These narratives about Black bodies as “naturally athletic,” “more powerful,” “more wild,” “less thoughtful,” and “less strategic” and black female bodies as “(un)naturally strong, invulnerable, and unattractive”– are central to Western narratives of white racial superiority.
I knew the hateration would be back in full force this year, when I tuned in to watch Donald Young, a wild card player in an early round match.
As Young played,
John McEnroe, who has been a great defender of Serena, Patrick McEnroe went on a diatribe about how “undisciplined” Young is and how the USTA (US Tennis Assoc) has had “problems” with him. Young stopped training at the the USTA’s tennis academies, and has instead chosen to let his parents train him at the facility they opened in ATL. But if Black players continue to defect from the formal ranks of the USTA, to train by themselves, perhaps the issue is not with the players or “their lack of discipline,” but rather with the USTA itself? Perhaps the problem is with a tennis system that largely sees Black players as a “problem.”
How does it feel to be a problem?
Still, it is the Williams Sisters who bring to the surface most of the problems with racism in U.S. tennis.
After losing the first set to Sam Stosur, Serena hit a winner at 30-40 in the 1st game of the 2nd set. Trying to pump herself up, she yelled out, “come on!” before Stosur hit the ball, apparently violating a little known “point hinderance” rule. The point, played at 30-40 on Serena’s racket, was taken away giving Stosur the first game. The ref had the discretion to call for replay of the point, or take it away, if it was deemed intentional. Clearly, it was unintentional.
Serena gave the ref the business for the next three games. She accused her of being the ref “that screwed me over last time,” remarking, “that is so not cool.” Turns out, the ref was not in fact the same person. Then during two changeovers Serena mocked the referee, telling her that she was “unattractive, pause, pause, pause, inside.” As she insulted the ref, Serena told her “don’t even look at me. I am not the one!”
Serena’s outbursts could be costly. At the 2009 Open, she was fined $82,500 and put on probation for threatening to shove a ball down the throat of a referee who kept giving her poor calls. After yesterday’s show of anger, she could be banned altogether. That move would be unfortunate, unfair, and costly for the game of women’s tennis.
Yes, Serena lost yesterday’s match because Sam Stosur played better. But I must point out that Serena played the semifinal until almost midnight on Saturday evening, only to have to turn around a play the finals match at 4:30 pm Sunday. The tennis officials capitalized on the Williams Sisters primetime appeal, by making Williams play her match after the two men’s semis. The move makes no sense (why split up the women’s semis?) unless we consider what the Williams Sisters mean for the USO’s bottom line.
And frankly, I see Serena’s outburst as understandable and amusing. Call me a Williams stan if you want to. It’s true. But this is not about simple loyalty.
Yes, I’m aware of all the ways in which her acts in this moment reinforce stereotypes of the Angry Black Woman. However, we cannot use our investment in a respectability politic which demands that Black women never show anger or emotion in the face of injustice to demand Serena’s silence. Resistance is often impolite, and frequently it demands that we skirt the rules.
Even so, when asked about her loss yesterday, Serena, while not remorseful about her exchange with the ref, was nothing but gracious to Sam Stosur on her win.
Moreover, the USTA loves angry heckling players—as long as they are white men. Early in the tournament, there was a video and interview tribute to Jimmy Connors, a player legendary for his angry outbursts on the court. In the tribute they devoted extended time to showing one of the more famous of these outbursts, in a celebratory manner. White anger is entertaining; Black anger must be contained. (Check out #7, 5, and 4 to see how regular such displays are in tennis.)
Serena continues to disrupt tennis spaces with her dark-skinned, powerful body, her flamboyant sartorial choices, her refusal to conform to the professional tennis obstacle course, and her willingness to get angry and show it.
That disruption is necessary—because however “right” or “wrong” it may technically be—it demonstrates that all is not well racially in tennis. Black folks—men and women—are still largely understood within a narrative of brute, undisciplined physical strength—rather than as athletes who bring both physical and intellectual skills to their game. As long as these issues remain, tennis will continue to be “unattractive” from the inside out.