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September 10, 2012


Oof! Certainly sounds like the secret history of tennis...

Not so secret, Elatia. The hostility and the discomfort were for all to see. I certainly saw it first hand from the snide comments in the high school tennis circuit in which my son played, to the tongue tied and baffled sports commentators who could not quite get the measure of these two outstanding women (girls when we first met them) athletes who learnt to play in public tennis courts, coached mostly by their brash and shrewd father. The interesting thing is that Venus and Serena are the personification of the American Dream - stupendously successful by the dint of their own hard work and the support of their family. If there were not such a dissonance between the national rhetoric and private attitudes, they would have been loved and celebrated from the moment the arrived.

What an amazing match the women's final was- I thought how strange it felt to not have both the sisters facing each other across the net ( which shows how sporadic my sports attention-span is, I guess).
I didn't know much about the veiled and not-so-veiled racism against Venus and Serena, maybe just because of the same lack of attention. Now that you mention it, it seems to have been similar for Gabby Douglas, even as she broke into the top ranks of the US women's gymnastics team.

From the article:

There was another aspect to my Venus love, however: the family-psychology trap. When the sisters started playing each other in majors — they met in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, the only time two women have done that in the Open Era — the Williamses gave a lot of weirdly unselfconscious interviews in which they talked openly about how Serena, as the youngest, had always been the princess of the family, and how, growing up, it had always been Venus's job to make sure Serena was OK ... Serena spent those matches looking like she uncomplicatedly wanted to win. Venus spent them looking trapped in some excruciating psycho-emotional cross-current between wanting to win and wanting Serena to be happy. When Serena won, she would celebrate. When Venus won, she would kind of half-celebrate and half-console Serena .... But throughout Venus's and Serena's primes, from, say, 2003 to 2010, the tennis culture gradually embraced Venus — she was so gracious, and she jumped up and down so sweetly when she won Wimbledon

I've not had a general 'Williams' box in my head for a long while, largely because of the early rivalry between them, which Serena dominated. I think the quoted text is something a majority of tennis fans used to disambiguate the sisters emotionally. And I think it's formative in the the conduct of the sisters themselves (or the public personas of the sisters at any rate)

Among people who don't have a generic 'Serenus' box in their heads, the author's [early] preference for Venus Williams might be generic. Support for Venus Williams is probably more grudging than that given to say Kim Clijsters, something probably explained by race. But, to set a scale on that problem, she's also a lot better liked than say Justine Henin, or Jennifer Capriati. Venus Williams I would argue has actually filled Lindsay Davenport's shoes as the elder statesman of tennis - in some ways their Wimbledon final, which Venus won, was a passing of the guard.

I think the forbearing older sister / bratty younger sister dynamic (also the fact that said younger sister has known far less failure, plus just inherent differences in character) is strongly in play here, much more so than blackness itself. And there's plenty besides race fueling Serena-dislike. I'm not sure I've ever seen Serena Williams lose a match and simply say 'my opponent played better' or even really acknowledge opponents as legitimate contenders with their own struggles and stories. There's feisty play and confidence, but there's also boorishness.

I don't think papering over crass conduct because of a racial subtext solves much. I would argue it makes things worse in the sense that it legitimates bad behavior as being somehow more 'legitimately black' than sportsmanship, emotional maturity and decency. To read that article, Venus Williams is an Uncle Tom character who sold out her blackness to coddle whitey, instead of being a seven time slam winner in her own right. To me words like arrogant and unsportmanlike fit the younger Ms. Williams just fine. Like McEnroe or Nastase, she'll be remembered as a great player, but no-one's going to be endowing fairplay or sportsmanship awards in her name.

That's just fine I am sure, not to name a "sportsmanship" award after Serena Williams. But fair play? When have you seen Serena win a match because she played unfair?

Prasad, can you come up with examples of Serena's "unsportsmanlike" conduct directed against her opponents? She has on a couple of occasions bullied linespersons and umpires when she did not agree with the point played. One such incident at the US Open was particularly ugly. As for acknowledging that someone played better than her, I have seen her do that many times. If at the same time, she criticizes her own game, I think she is mostly correct because when Serena plays her best, there is hardly anyone who can beat her including Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters or Venus. How many times have you seen Serena lose unless it is her own unforced errors that take her down?

If you have not seen evidence of racism against the Williams sisters, it may be because you were quite young during the 1990s when they first arrived on the tennis circuit and when the rudeness was most on display, including publishing pictures of the sisters in midplay which made them look their worst and detailed descriptions of their father's sideline braggadocio. In the dozen years since their first appearance, the sisters have been so good and so lopsidedly successful, that the sheer power of their game has earned them the grudging and now more sincere admiration of the critics.

I look at Serena's "brashness-as-armor" quite differently from the way the author does. It is a protection for both the Williamses against a very palpable hostility (much less now) from the tennis establishment. While Venus is visibly and emotionally the big sister, Serena's lack of timidity has functioned as a protection for 'both' of them in a more subtle way - "Don't mess with Venus or me or I will deck you" is the message in little sister's swagger. And good for her if she came prepared not to take crap from anyone.

Ruchira, whatever our different assessments trace to, I'm sure it's not age, since I've been an avid tennis fan since early childhood. One of my earliest memories is of crying because Lendl lost Wimbledon to Cash in 1987 (was four then). Used to play a fair bit till I hit my teens actually. I remember all of the nineties certainly, and was old enough to grok identity politics for most of that time :)

For the rest, my main reason for disliking Serena Williams is what I said - I've basically never seen her lose without claiming bad form, playing badly, bad luck, injury etc etc. Not even to her sister, though she's less awful then. Sure, she's an amazing player, but it's not like this is an unprecedented level of tennis greatness. When you say "she is mostly correct because when Serena plays her best, there is hardly anyone who can beat her including Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters or Venus. How many times have you seen Serena lose unless it is her own unforced errors" that applies to a rather larger set of players than SW alone. Just off the top of my head, Martina, Monica Seles, Graf, Sampras, Federer and Nadal have hit comparable peaks of tennis excellence. So the correctness of such a claim is neither distinctive or for me at issue.

For better or for worse (I for one value this a fair bit), the tennis politeness/etiquette convention is to not make excuses after a loss. Many players even consider it bad form to blame an actual injury or illness for a loss, at least for several weeks after a match. A Nadal for example wouldn't make that excuse right after a loss even when visibly struggling with his body. So the churlishness of SW sticks out a fair bit, the more so precisely because she's dominant like the others I named; when someone beats you it's a huge deal for them, so diminishing the moment seems rather iffy. Or that's how I see it at any rate.

I wasn't saying I don't see racism against the Williamses. And I agree there was more of it early on. But the VW/SW difference to me (and it's a huge difference. Venus simply isn't disliked today, and hasn't been for a very long time. As far as I can tell she's more admired than any current woman playing this side of Kim Clijsters) is tracking principally real differences in behavior, not punishment of an "uppity" player.

Fascinating, everyone. I can remember when Venus was, like the Virgin Mary, alone of all her sex. She was not good-mannered. In one famous incident, she and another player were walking at each other from different directions along a path too narrow for both to pass without each swerving slightly to avoid mild collision. Venus, with her shoulder, shoved rather than swerved. Point made -- get out of her way, because she won't get out of yours. Both sisters are boorish by any standards, with Venus the slightly mellower -- by now. Each has the kind of athletic talent that allows her to carry it off, and their manners are a matter of showmanship too, which is sometimes 180 degrees from sportsmanship. In tennis as elsewhere, a black person who is too good a sport is a lackey, comfortable with and grateful for 2nd place/2nd class. The sisters have horrible manners and they need them. Like early feminists, like defiant gays pre-Stonewall.

The real question is, can a fantastically talented poor loser/ungracious winner be also unremarkable for gender and for race? On that day, there will be equality in tennis.

A film of the early 1970s accidentally made a related point about women highly placed in music. "Antonia: Portrait of a Woman" was financed by Judy Collins as a tribute to her old music teacher, Antonia Brico, who led a Denver orchestra, the Brico Symphony, that could never seem to get booked like more orthodox classical music groups led by men. It was clear from the film that the Brico Symphony failed on musical points, alas. The true issue raised was -- when will a woman be allowed to be just as mediocre as a man?

Sorry Elatia, but you are misremembering the collision between Venus and Irina Spirlea. It is mentioned in Brian Phillips' article that I have linked to.

In 1997, Irina Spirlea deliberately bumped Venus during a changeover at the U.S. Open; in 2001, the crowd booed Serena at the final at Indian Wells, and some fans allegedly yelled racial slurs.4 Everywhere they went, those first few years, the atmosphere was tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) confrontational.

Most accounts of the incident (I witnessed it) hold Spirlea as the "bumper," not Venus. Spirlea was a notorious tennis brat by any standard of behavior. Venus' father Richard Williams commented that Serena would have shoved back. I do not remember Venus ever as a bad or boorish girl. She was awkward, tongue tied but never aggressive outside the court.

I also don't remember the early Venus Williams as being rude to other players or fans. As for black tennis players -needing- to be rude, Serena Williams is an interesting case (I'd call her rude), but in general I think that's simply not true empirically: the pioneers, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, didn't have reputations of this sort, quite to the contrary. Closer to today, all the other black pros players I can think of come across as pretty ordinary psychological types: Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Malivai Washington, Jo Tsonga, James Blake, Gael Monfils... Some of those people are unusually nice, others don't stand out in either direction, still others are less nice. But it's a pretty ordinary behavior curve.

Most tennis players of whatever gender/race have the etiquette thing (don't curse, don't throw your racquet, apologize if you win a lucky point, applaud the opponent's winners, don't make excuses, say nice things to the umpires and ballkids etc) drilled in, plus everyone has sponsors to coach them. Tennis is a pretty well-behaved sport; those who conspicuously aren't (Nastase, McEnroe, Hingis, Tarango, Rios, Nalbandian etc) stick out.

If I remember it wrong, I remember it very clearly! My distinct impression is of that kind of rudeness that serves political aims better than modest niceness does, IF it comes at the right time. If I am wrong in details, I nonetheless believe the careers and manners of notable black tennis players follow an arc that compares with other civil rights arcs -- polite to get in the door, aggressive to achieve power and permanence. I am not looking only at sport but at the long slow battle for women's rights and full civil rights for gays. You see it in music too -- for instance Wilson Pickett's remarks about where he fit in coming exactly when he did, who he had to be to thrive. A less important point I made, that I believe is valid, is about the difference between rudeness for the sake of a sound byte and rudeness because of a short fuse and a bad temperament. I would just never know whether a really outrageous character were angling for camera time or genuine -- is Ann Coulter for real or is creating outrage her ticket? Still less can mainstream sports figures be taken at face value. Talent and drive are real, the presentation self often not.

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