In defense of Serena Williams
Serena Williams is no stranger to adversity. Though she is arguably tennis’ biggest star, she’s faced an undercurrent of incivility both from the media’s representation of her and within her own profession throughout her entire career. While battling on-court opposition may be the main obstacle most of fellow athletes face, for Williams, that has been only one part of her climb to the top of the tennis world. The other, of course, is her battle with racism, sexism, and the court of public opinion.
Williams has battled racism and sexism since the early days of her career. As statuesque black woman born and raised in Compton, California, Serena and her sister, Venus, broke the mold not only of what tennis players can look like, but also of what they can do as they annihilated their competition in unprecedented ways. Serena has particularly faced vitriolic backlash despite her accomplishments: She has been compared to animals, disparaged by competitors as not being feminine enough, and has been deemed almost unbeatable, not because of her skills or competitive drive, but because of her “raw aggression.” Her hair has been subject of jeering, cornrows adorned with beads referred to as a distraction. Once fellow tennis player Caroline Wozniacki padded her chest and behind on the court in order to mock Williams' physique.
Today Williams still finds herself enmeshed in fighting for respect on the court. Most recently, the French Open banned Williams from wearing a now-famous catsuit outfit during her matches. The targeted rule change stated that the black catsuit would “no longer be accepted,” due to concerns over respect for the sport and tournament. The president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, stated that “you have to respect the game and the place.”
The banned garment may have been a fashion choice that Williams said made her feel like a “warrior princess,” but it was also a medical measure to prevent the type of blood clots that threatened her life when she gave birth not long ago. The suit was designed to help Williams cope with this medical issue. Neither reason has anything to do with Williams’ so-called lack of respect for tennis, but the ban seemed to have much to do with the tennis establishment’s disrespect for one of the game’s greatest players — undeniably due to her race and gender. As many people pointed out in response to this development, a white tennis player was allowed to wear a catsuit in 1985. And the targeting of Williams with this ban was all the more resonant considering how this particular black woman has been criticized throughout her entire, illustrious career for her physique, her race, and the fact that she isn’t a man.
Many people came to Williams’ defense, however, including Nike and tennis legend Billie Jean King. Nike responded to the ban with a retort that carried as much pointed heat as a serve from Williams herself; the brand posted a black and white image of Williams in her catsuit, post-swing, with simple text reading, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.” Billie Jean King tweeted that “the policing of women’s bodies must end. The ‘respect’ that’s needed is for the exceptional talent [Serena Williams] brings to the game,” adding that “criticizing what [Williams] wears to work is where the true disrespect lies.”
But just as she has in the past, Williams herself met the racial provocation with class and judiciousness. “Everything’s fine,” Williams said to reporters about the incident just before competing in the U.S. Open. For someone whose career has been dissected and scrutinized for decades, it’s unsurprising just how unsurprised Williams was that her wardrobe was put under a magnifying glass.
Just days after the French Open controversy, Williams found herself at the center of inflammatory headlines again — this time due to a new controversy at the U.S. Open. During the second set of the tournament’s final, championship match, chair umpire Carlos Ramos charged Williams with what she saw as unfair violations, essentially altering the momentum and pace of the match. Williams contested the violations and snapped back at the umpire for being a “thief.”
Williams’ perceived outburst at the chair umpire was perceived by some as “aggressive” and “unprofessional.” And yet, male players behave similarly all the time without receiving criticism. Serena Williams’ equivalent in the male circuit, Roger Federer, has been dismissive of and spoken profanely to an umpire, but the incident didn’t even register with most fans and hardly warranted media attention. Men are allowed to be assertive, bordering on condescending, but assertive women are interpreted as inappropriately aggressive. This double standard applied to Williams in the public’s interpretation of her response to an unfair call as an affront to tennis etiquette, and she was therefore seen as out of line for telling Ramos “You owe me an apology.”
Another unfortunate outcome of this event was that the coverage surrounding the altercation between Williams and Ramos shrouded the U.S. Open victory of Naomi Osaka, which made her the first Japanese player in history to win a Grand Slam. The fallout has marred Osaka’s victory while simultaneously marring the reputation of one of the sport’s greatest stars.
While it’s frustrating that Williams has to find herself navigating distractions like these instead of focusing on her 23 Grand Slam championships, Williams is nothing if not persistent. Though the clothing ban she weathered was probably frustrating, she insisted on coming back the next day to dominate in a tutu. So despite the sport’s consistent efforts to rattle one of the most dominant players to ever pick up a racket, if Williams’ history is any indication, these incidents will (thankfully) do very little to slow her down.
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