I love the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, - loved them from the moment they arrived on the scene and shook up our notion of how women's tennis is played ... and much more. Ever since they made their debut on the Grand Slam circuit, I have heard it said, in different grudging ways, that the sisters are ungracious, un-sportsmanlike, arrogant and amazingly enough, too good and too strong for other players to beat! I rarely saw any evidence of the the first three characteristics while the last two were on display again and again. So what is it (or is not) about Venus and Serena that it took so long for sports fans to cheer for them and their extraordinary playing skills, even their fellow Americans? After all, Americans love winners.
All the while that I was watching Serena play and win yesterday's US Open final, I was telling my husband that these two superb athletes have been asked repeatedly to "behave" just so that their presence in the upper class white milieu of professional tennis can become acceptable to an audience who took notorious tennis nasties like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in their stride with a shrug and awe. While no one will admit it, the Williams sisters faced the same racial barriers to their mainstreaming as did Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Tiger Woods in the sports arena and as does Barack Obama in the realm of politics - discomfort with a physically and socially alien person, no matter how good they may be at what they do. Implicit biases are hard to overcome even when excellence is undeniable. This article by Brian Phillps in Grantland examines the Williams Sisters (Serena in particular) phenomenon and the tennis public's discomfort with their larger than life presence on the courts. Excerpted in the article is Tony Hoagland's The Change, a controversial poem that minces few words.
And they were controversial. I mean, John Rocker was "controversial"; the Williams sisters were divisive in ways that almost defy analysis. Simply by virtue of being black, confident, from Compton, and physically on a different plane from their competitors, they raised a swarm of issues — about race, class, gender, who was inside, who was outside, what we were supposed to identify with in sports — that society, much less the WTA Tour, barely had the vocabulary to address. Tennis, in its unimportant way, had long since become one of those numb zones in which everyone more or less means well but also tacitly agrees that certain things are nicer not to discuss. Semi-serious tennis fans, as a class, were whiter, richer, and better educated than society overall.2 After the Williams sisters appeared, it was no longer possible for these fans to stay pleasantly unconscious of the fact that their chosen sport trended almost ludicrously white and upper-class, and that most of them, without being in any way self-identifyingly racist, were actually pretty OK with that. A lot of white tennis fans, in other words, suddenly felt besieged by an enemy they hadn't even known they were against."