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The racial spin in tennis

This is an excerpt from Women and Sport by Ellen J. Staurowsky.

In her book So Much to Live For, Althea Gibson, the African American athlete credited with breaking the color barrier at two of the most prestigious tennis events in the world, Wimbledon and the United States National Tournament (later to be called the U.S. Open), wrote, "Most of us who aspire to be tops in our fields don’t really consider the amount of work required to stay tops" (Gibson & Curtis, 1968, p. 59). While Gibson’s quotation was in reference to the work ethic and practice involved in maintaining champion status, we cannot help but wonder how her identity as an African American woman in the White, upper-class sport of tennis may have influenced her perspective. Years later, Venus and Serena Williams, also African American, would grace the same courts as Gibson with a stature, strength, and flair that were outside the conservative norm of tennis.


The coverage of the careers of these two women is demarked by positive experiences like Venus’ successful fight for pay equality at Wimbledon to the negative experiences that Serena, Venus, and their father Richard described in 2001 at the Indian Wells tournament (known currently as the BNP Paribas Open) (Drucker, 2009; Williams & Paisner, 2009). In a scene described by veteran sportswriter Bruce Jenkins (2013) as "one of the ugliest scenes in sports history," the Indian Wells crowd of nearly 16,000 maligned Serena when she entered the stadium to warm up for her final with Kim Clijsters by booing loudly and then turning their attention to her father and Venus when they settled into their seats to watch the match.


Throughout the match, the crowd continued to taunt Serena and cheered when she made errors. After beating Clijsters, a White Belgian tennis athlete, the crowd continued to express their disapproval by booing during the awards ceremony. Media reports indicate that the backlash against Serena was a result of speculations that the Williams sisters, at the bidding of their father, had fixed the semifinal match. The atmosphere was fueled by a perception that Venus had feigned an injury, backing out of the semifinal match with her sister the day before to clear the way for Serena to advance to the final. These claims were unsubstantiated, and despite Richard’s allegations that racial slurs had been directed at him ("Off-Court Distractions," 2001), their experiences were not deemed by the media or tournament director as being racially motivated (Douglas, 2005). After a 14-year boycott of the event, Serena finally returned to Indian Wells in March 2015; however, just as her sister had done in 2001, Serena also withdrew from the semifinals because of a knee injury.


Throughout the years, Venus and Serena have continued to dominate tennis with numerous Grand Slam and WTA titles. Instead of receiving constant accolades for their success, fellow tennis players viewed "all Williams" Grand Slam finals as "a little bit sad for women’s tennis" and questioned whether the William sisters were good or bad for tennis (Nichols, 2002; Philip, 2002; Roberts, 2002). Serena would face similar taunts and boos at the 2003 French Open - and similar to the Indian Wells discourse, the role of race was discounted in that event as well (Douglas, 2005).


Specifically, during her semifinal match in Paris, Serena’s performance was derailed when opponent Justine Henin-Hardenne, a White Belgian, put up her hand while Serena was in the midst of her first serve (in tennis, you get two chances to serve a ball into the court). Serena backed off of her serve because Justine had signaled that she was not ready, and the ball went into the net. The expected protocol would have been for the server to receive another first serve. The chair umpire, however, did not see that Justine had gestured that she was not ready. Etiquette generally requires that players offer information to clarify a situation like that; however, Justine remained silent. Serena lost the serve, the next four points, and eventually the match in front of a partisan crowd who clearly wanted the Belgian to win. Eight years later, after Justine retired, she admitted that she had intentionally withheld information that day as a way of countering what she described as the Williams’ sisters capacity to "intimidate" their opponents (Chase, 2011). The lone voice in the media to acknowledge the role of race came from Serena’s mom, Oracene Price, who explicitly asserted, "They wanted a blonde and a ponytail" (Vecsey, 2003).


Concerns about racism and sexism were, however, explicitly raised about Venus and Serena’s recurrent placement on the No. 2 Court in the Wimbledon tournament. The sisters, along with many prominent players, questioned the reasons for these decisions. Greg Couch, a reporter for Sporting News, boldly asserted, "They still want players in white, and are stuck in a time when tennis was exclusive. Whatever their real intentions and reasons, the club looks like a walking stereotype when it deals with the Williams sisters" (Couch, 2011, para. 17). In fact, in 2010, the club spokesman acknowledged that physical attractiveness was taken into consideration while assigning players to Centre Court (Andrews, 2009). Serena and Venus have been noted for being beautiful women, but in the tennis world their beauty is denigrated because they do not "fit the typical white tennis ideal: tall, blonde and rail thin" (Couch, 2011, para. 25). In a failed attempt to be complimentary, Rolling Stone Magazine described Serena as "black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas" (Rodrick, 2013, para. 2).


Douglas’ (2005) use of critical race scholarship and Whiteness offers a great counter narrative to Venus and Serena’s purportedly raceless experiences in professional tennis and highlights the role that overt and hidden systemic racism and discrimination played in defining their experiences. One might ponder: Is Serena encountering racialized hostility or simply hostility? If tennis players such as Ashley Harkleroad, Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, or Ana Ivanovic (all racially categorized as White) had repeatedly won Grand Slam and WTA titles, would they have been treated similarly and told that it is about time they give others a chance ("The Story," 2003), or that it is "a little bit sad for women’s tennis" (Philip, 2002, p. 10)?


As exemplified by Venus and Serena’s experiences, female athletes of color encounter challenges - positive and negative - that shape their athletic endeavors and affect their life experiences. While these challenges are significant, not all are known, and many are framed in a manner that reduces the athletes’ contribution and dehumanizes their existence.

Learn more about Women and Sport: From Liberation to Celebration.