Serena Williams: Greatness in the Heart of Darkness

By John Gorman

Serena Williams won her 14th Grand Slam Title Saturday.

In case you don’t know what the number 14 signifies in her profession, here’s a list of the Top 5 WTA Career Grand Slam titleholders:

Titles #
1. West Germany Steffi Graf 22
2. United States Chris Evert 18
=. Czechoslovakia/United States Martina Navratilova 18
4. United States Serena Williams 14
5. Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/United States Monica Seles 9


There’s Serena Williams, solidly in fourth place, five clear of Monica Seles (who, by all accounts, could’ve at least added a few to her total had she not been horrifically carved up by a maniacal Steffi Graf fan while on the tennis court. Yes, youngins, that really happened. Not in the 40s or 70s … like, less than 20 years ago.)

The next active women’s tennis player has half as many Grand Slam titles … and that’s her sister, with whom she’s also won five Wimbledon Doubles championships.

It’s damn near impossible to compare players of different eras, but by almost any objective measure, Serena seems properly rated if you put her in the Top Five.

But you’d never know it.

The myriad accomplishments of Serena Williams gets routinely overlooked and compartmentalized, and instead she’s critiqued, quarantined and blasted with thinly-veiled paternalist and racist code. By now, you’ve heard it so often, you’ve probably forgotten how outrageous her mistreatment’s been.

Maybe you’ve forgotten about how Miss Williams and her sister, despite carrying women’s tennis for the better part of the past decade, are routinely asked to play on Court 2 instead of the marquee Court 1 at Wimbledon, eschewed for a different … style … of tennis player. Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki haven’t had much trouble securing Court 1 matches.

Maybe you’ve forgotten Miss Williams chastizing a chair umpire at the U.S. Open in 2009. While the outburst was reprehensible, fan reaction was far more appalling. Overt racist and sexist hostilities rained down upon her via social media and slightly more subtle editions of the same were lobbed by analysts, commentators and many who feel access to a microphone means access to a soapbox.

Were her actions so much more disappointing than anything John McEnroe said or did in the 70s and 80s? Certainly not. But while McEnroe was embraced as a “Bad Boy” of tennis and grew to be admired for his competitiveness (and contributed to the softening of his edges by frequently parodying is own boorish behavior), Serena was fined and verbally destroyed, and that threat (and a few other choice words she’s volleyed at chair umps) have stuck with her like red ink on her permanent record, while Andy Roddick’s frequent whining has been mostly swept under the proverbial rug.

Maybe you’ve forgotten Jason Whitlock (who could blame you), referring to Serena as an “underachiever”, or referring to her posterior region as a “back pack” or her athletic frame “an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber.”

For reference, Maria Sharapova is taller than Serena, and former American star Lindsay Davenport is similarly built.

Maybe you’ve forgotten the 2007 Sony Ericsson Open, where a white male heckler yelled out, “Hit the ball into the net like any n****r would.” When Serena rightfully halted the match and demanded the prick to be expunged from the gallery, the behavior that suffered the most criticism was her own.

Lest you think that was a one-time occurrence, that event took place six years after Serena was booed by the majority white crowd during her match against Kim Clijsters, after the withdrawal of her sister from the tournament. As her sister and father watched, they were subject to a litany of racial slurs. Her father was quoted in the New York Times, “One guy said: ‘I wish it was ’75 [a reference to the 1975 Los Angeles race riots]; we’d skin you alive’.” Said Venus: “I heard what he heard.”

When Venus and Serena first burst onto the scene, “intrusion” and “invasion” were often used to describe their meteoric rise.

Serena’s often credited with possessing overwhelming “physical prowess” by competitors, media and fans. Rarely is she commended for correctly playing angles or manipulating her opponent into mistakes.

Serena is frequently described as “masculine”, “angry”, “arrogant”, “uppity.” Not strong enough? How about, “Menacing.” “Threatening.” “Aggressive.” Translation: Her big serve, big attitude and confidence aren’t lady enough. They aren’t white enough.

You can try and argue, but the exhaustive body of evidence is too comprehensive. She’s been on the WTA for 15 years. Criticisms persist to a deafening level to this day.

Though women as a category have been universally oppressed since, I don’t know, forever, white women have fared comparatively better at benefiting from whatever strides have been made at promoting equal rights for all.

Someone back in 2008 posted an unspeakably obnoxious and insensitive poll, “Which Race Has The Most Beautiful Women?” Results are posted here:

It’s unscientific, sure, but it’s noteworthy as a snapshot of how real people subjectively view beauty, and how black women are unfairly stigmatized as ‘ugly’ – beyond all races, even “mixed.” Yes, ’tis better to be anything – and EVERYTHING – except black.

In 2009, The Australian Open released a “Top 10 Most Beautiful Women Of …” on their official website. Serena was nowhere to be found, but a lot of tall, blonde, rail-thin lasses were there to say hello.

Debbie Schlussel, a white conservative pundit, once eloquently chided:

Message to Big Daddy Williams: If your daughters looked like Tyra Banks and Beyonce, maybe fans would find your daughters exciting. It has nothing to do with race. Fans weren’t excited by Seles or Graf, either. But they just loved Anna Kournikova. Her tennis skills (she never won a tournament) had nothing to do with it.

So Venus and Serena are ugly? And that women’s tennis dominated by ‘ugliness’ causes us to find women’s tennis boring?

We hold black women to impossibly high standards where they must overachieve to be considered level with white women, who are also held to impossibly high standards where they must overachieve to be viewed as level with men.

Social theorist once Patricia Hill Collins explained,

“At the heart of both racism and sexism are notions of biological determinism claiming that people of African descent and women possess immutable biological characteristics marking their inferiority to elite white men.”

The way Serena’s race and gender engage in a synergistic amplification of oppressive stigmas directed toward her is called Intersectionality.

And that crossroads can be plainly illustrated: Black male athletes have constantly had to suffer through the elevation of their physical gifts over their mental gifts and perceived effort, female athletes have constantly had to suffer through the elevation of their beauty over their athletic performance. The Williams sisters, for whatever reason, are unfairly judged by both their bodies and their mental makeup.

Serena gets dogged with questions on her curves and a cerebral cortex so often they should just hold her press conferences in triage.

She’s consistently saddled with having to re-affirm her “commitment” to the game. Even as Serena blasted Dinara Safina 6-0 6-3 in the 2009 Australian Open Final, ESPN Commentator Mary Carillo questioned her “commitment” to the game.

Serena’s won $38,000,000 playing tennis – more money than any woman in history (by a mere $10,000,000) – she was “committed” to the game … all the way to the bank. She was “committed” to the game through type of near-death health scares that would shock weaker minds into retirement or prolonged depression. She was “committed” through an incalculable chorus of hate.

A recent espnW roundtable included phrases like, “When healthy and motivated”, “if she sets her mind to it”, “as far as motivation”, “if she can keep her wits about her on the court”, and “will she have the focus and drive to continue to win?” Did anyone insert those qualifiers when referencing Steffi Graf? Roger Federer? Ivan Lendl?

Other than Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis, who had flagrant substance abuse issues, and Anna Kournikova, who is a walking study in sexism and sexualization all on her own, who else has struggled through criticisms of “effort” and “character”?

The woman who opens schools in Kenya? The woman who started her own fashion line? “Effort?” “Character?”

Media and fans, you can’t fire her. She doesn’t work for you. Who are we to address her level of “commitment” when she’s so clearly earned the opportunity to pursue whatever she pleases with whatever level of focus or intensity she desires?

Serena Williams gets passed over for endorsement deals and overlooked on “Best Of” lists and public appearances, despite being simultaneously the best and most charismatic tennis player of her generation, and certainly the best American tennis player (men’s or women’s) since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Her extraordinary career has clearly run perpendicular to what the tennis establishment wants. In the lily-white, paternalistic world of tennis, Serena is impossible to ignore. And the more she wins, the more impossible to ignore she becomes. Look at that chart again, up top. How much higher does she need to climb before she’s recognized and embraced on par with other luminaries? Not just in her sport – but against similarly dominant athletes like Roger Federer, Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning?

Maybe the negativity and the ignorance has been momentarily tranquilized because of the extraordinary circumstances engulfing her return to tennis genius this late in her career. We love a good comeback story – especially when one conquers strength-sapping health scares. But will the detente continue?

Will Serena Williams be celebrated the way the game celebrated other greats after their playing careers have passed? Will Serena be able to go out on her own terms? One last victory lap around the circuit where she smoked everyone for over half her life?

I hope so. Because one day, there’s a good chance I’ll have a daughter. Look at my picture in the byline. There’s also a good chance my daughter will never have to prevail through what Serena has had to overcome. But I hope one day my daughter looks up to Serena Williams, and I hope she handles her life and career with as much grace, class, self-awareness and balance as Serena has and still does.

And I hope she lives in a world where never has to hear any of the caustic vitriol our generation’s had to listen to about successful, beautiful black female athletes.

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