Twice in one month. Who’s surprised? You shouldn’t be. If you saw the last piece I wrote – or the continued discussions over the racist and misogynist views people have of women and notably black women in the traditionally WASP sport, then it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Serena Williams has once again found herself thrown to the flames in just a few weeks.
On the surface, it is easy to think Ms. Williams reacted in an unsportswomanlike manner. Some have called out how she “verbally attacked” the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos in yesterday’s US Open Final. Some question her supposed inability to keep her cool when facing a tough opponent. Some tweets even judged her as finished in the sport and should retire:
The most disgusting tennis player of all times: @serenawilliams
Rude, drug user, unprofessional, cry baby, snowflake, playing the victim at any occasion, bad and sore loser, racial card, female card. Should have respect for umpires and colleagues. Time to retire and move on.
— Luca (@LucaInsanguine) September 9, 2018
Serena Williams should quietly retire from tennis… She should understand that she's now a mother n as such her body is no longer as before
— STEPHEN (@okpokpo147) September 9, 2018
Good grief. Where to begin…
First: Let’s tackle the easy part. After a difficult birth, the (unofficial) world number one has reached consecutive Grand Slam finals, finishing both as runner up. To get to the semis seemed like a challenge, let alone the finals. But yes, of course she’s done. Interesting to see these people present that logic to the hundreds of pro-tennis players who never make the finals.
Next: let’s add a little context:
- US Open 2001 — Lleyton Hewitt insinuates that a linesman continued to rule in favor of James Blake because both were black; he denied the allegation claiming he was “not racial”; backlash questions his role in the incident, no official punishment.
- Australian Open 2008 — Andy Roddick loudly chastised the umpire, calling him an idiot and received a retrospective $500 fine for racquet abuse; no penalties in game.
- ATP Tour’s Citi Open 2018 — Benoit Paire smashed not one, not two, but three racquets, with only the third one resulting in a penalty.
- US Open 2018 — Nick Kyrgios has a one-on-one pep talk with the umpire, with both insisting he wasn’t coached; media discussion is civil, with no official punishment for player or umpire.
- Tennis 1978 – 1994 — John McEnroe… Too many to mention. Just look into it yourself, with notable mention of ‘You cannot be serious!?‘ and dousing the King of Sweden with juice after hitting bottles at the courtside.
There are lots of other examples.
Emotional – adjective – 1: Outspoken [masculine]; 2: Hysterical [feminine]
Does Serena Williams have an emotional streak when things don’t go her way or when someone calls her out for something that was either undeserved or a punishment that other violators never receive? Yes. I would, too. So would most. As did McEnroe, as does Andy Murray, as does Roger Federer. The difference is that Williams is a black woman. For this she is labeled “hysterical”, a term literally meaning crazy woman, and “angry”, the stereotypical depiction of black women. Men, meanwhile receive eye rolls, are described as “getting heated”, or are simply “outspoken”.
For Naomi Osaka, her first Grand Slam will forever be tainted. During the second game of the second set, Ms. Willams received a violation from the umpire, Carlos Ramos, for the coaching from Patrick Mouratoglou. Before anyone reacts, please remember the special treatment men receive, including the aforementioned Kyrgios whose umpire pep talk would have seen Ms. Williams labeled as a cheat had it been her. As Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization of Women, said:
Ramos claimed he was just following the rules, but in actuality men stretch the rules all the time and are lionized for being ‘bad boys’ while women are benched. This is also a prime example of how racism and sexism are two of the biggest obstacles that black women in America face.
The problem here isn’t necessarily the penalty (which even pro-tennis players have highlighted as a clear double-standard, pointing out their own behavior during matches). Rather, it’s the fact that had this been a man reacting in the exact same way, we wouldn’t be talking about it. It wouldn’t be the sole narrative, it wouldn’t have been gotten to the point where it became the entire match. It would have been written off in the men’s game as a dispute that was surmounted by sportsmanship male athletes seem to just possess without trying. But we are discussing it, and the reason is both racial and gendered.
Changing the narrative
Black women are painted with the brush of being angry. They are depicted as being mean-spirited when men or even white women are given the benefit of the doubt. Whether you believe she deserved to be called out or not, an umpire hasn’t interfered at this level in a men’s Grand Slam final.
The opinions people have on Ms. Williams’ actions do not negate the sexism or racism prevalent in tennis, and most other areas of life. You may opine Ms. Williams’ actions as well as the above examples as those of a “spoiled brat”. But while you are allowed your opinion, your opinion can be wrong.
It doesn’t matter if you equate McEnroe and Williams and say he too should have been penalized for all his antics; it is a fact that our cultural views of the angry black woman gave this moment in one game a lot more heat than if it occurred in the men’s competition. Men are told to pipe down where black women are chastised as spoiled, egotistical, and treated as the games antagonists.
And yet the peculiar aspect which both the media and common spectators are focused on is the fact Ms. Williams demanded an apology from Ramos. Many black women go through incidents every day without even the expectation they could receive any kind of reparation, typically offering their own apologies in order to make others feel comfortable.
These are feelings being expressed by countless women all races and backgrounds as all too familiar occurrence:
I cried. Not just for Serena. But for the raw familiarity of what she endured and for women who are Serena all day, everyday. With poise and patience we rise above being wronged by power-tripping men. #WeAreSerena
— Jehmu (@Jehmu) September 8, 2018
Ms. Williams turned this narrative upside down last night in the most public way.
The only thing worse than losing is an unfair loss
Ms. Williams is singled out all the time, despite dominating her sport for over a decade, and the only thing that differentiates her from all the other athletes in the game is that she is a successful, superior woman who is also black. Other women and other black athletes in the sport aren’t treated with the same level of mistreatment as either Serena or Venus Williams. And it is because the view of a successful black woman threatens our governing culture.
We are used to seeing a very specific depiction of what a winner looks like, and how they supposedly act. Neither are true. And as I mentioned in the earlier article about the Williams sisters, the culture of tennis is inherently white country club, and that is the culture still present at the very top level of the organizations which run the sport. There is little room for modernism, whether it is dress, attitude, behavior, or even the gender or ethnicity of the competitors.
To depict her as a sore loser is to ignore all the times Ms. Williams has lost fairly with grace and dignity. The 2018 Wimbledon final saw her bested by Angelique Kerber. Her reaction was not unsportswomanlike, nor heated, emotional or hysterical. The entire reason for Ms. Williams’ reaction was never about losing a match; this was about losing one unfairly, for being selected for punishment countless others have managed to avoid.
Neither Ms. Williams nor Ms. Osaka were treated fairly. One man’s power-trip over the two women prevented both athletes from knowing what the fair outcome would have been, win or lose.
For Ms. Osaka, her first Grand Slam win against her hero will be bitter as while it was likely that she would have won regardless of the incident in the second set, no one can guarantee she would have succeeded without Ramos’ interference.