THE SERENA FALLOUT – REFLECTIONS, RACISM AND RAGE

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Photo by Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for USTA

Bill Simons

In 37 years of covering tennis, I’ve participated in about 7,000 press conferences. But I’ve never had a more intense, mind-boggling moment than when Serena Williams looked me right in the eye as I asked her the last question at her press conference after the US Open final.

I said, “We can never really go back, Serena, but if you could change one thing about what occurred, what would it be?” As she paused and reflected, I hoped that she would open up and express her truth. Boy, did she.

The singular champion of sport and life gave us a powerful, provocative commentary that has now been heard around the world. “I can’t sit here,” she said, “and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief, because I thought he took a game from me. But I’ve seen…men call umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality… For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’

“It blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [rights] – like [Alize] Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine. This is outrageous.

“[What] I have to go through, this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and [who] wants to express themselves, and wants to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

Wow! Her passionate response had a thunderous force. It hit me in the chest – I slumped in my seat. There was applause from the back of the interviw room. Yet savvy, smart and presumably feminist women tennis writers from New York and Switzerland grimaced – “Enough with this sexism bit,” they grumbled.

The fallout from the most tumultuous, soul-searching tennis final since Serena was howled at in Indian Wells 19 years ago was off to a roaring start. The issues were obvious and complex, important and nuanced. Everyone from “Mother Freedom” (that would be Billie Jean King), to a racist cartoonist in Sydney expressed their views. Once again, Serena was proving that not since Muhammad Ali has there been a greater lightning rod in sports. She transcends.

On Twitter I asked, “Has any other athlete ever provoked us, prodded us, frustrated us, taught us, entertained us, amazed us, baffled us and taken us to so many shores as the flawed and fabulous wonder woman #SerenaWilliams?”

Some chided me – “Give it a rest, enough already.” A certain Serena fatigue and cynicism hovered. Mary Carillo asserted that at her worst, Serena “acts like abully.” Others asked, “Serena taught us what?”

OMG. This singular woman has taught us that you don’t have to come from a country club to prevail; that you can boycott a tennis event where as a teen you were booed, that you can come back from wretched first-round losses, from a traumatic childbirth and from not one but two brushes with death, that you can win a Grand Slam with a baby in your belly, and that you can have a child and then become a two-time Slam finalist. Serena has taught us that sisterhood is powerful, that it’s fine to wear a daring body suit, fine to combat body shaming, and fine to celebrate having a big, black body. That it’s okay to marry a man of another race, that you can stand up for racial justice in our legal system, that it’s okay to back Colin Kaepernick, and that, even in a moment of total chaos at the US Open, it’s okay to diffuse the hostility of the crowd. “Let’s make the most of this moment. Let’s give credit where credit is due.”

Some say there should be a clear separation between tennis and politics. But even in sports there are few boundaries. Issues of race, gender, psychology and heritage are part of what make this game so intriguing.

Not so intriguing was a racist cartoon of Serena and Naomi Osaka that the Sydney Herald Sun published, which, according to Salamishah Tillet, [had] “features exaggerated so [Serena] looked like a monster…[It was a] direct descendant of the racist caricatures of the 19th century…[Once again] African-American women are portrayed as overly aggressive, impulsive, physically threatening and ultimately, less than human.”

It was vile. According to writer Zeba Blay, “Williams has been cast as the big, ugly, angry black woman. Osaka, by contrast, has been cast as the innocent white girl, even though she’s not even white…light skin, slim frame, blonde hair…Osaka is framed…as a more acceptable and palatable version of blackness.” The cartoonist claimed his drawing “had nothing to do with gender or race.”

Serena has been the subject of many zingers and questionable calls. Ion Tiriac recently called her old, overweight and a bad leader. Russia’s tennis czar Shamil Tarpsichev referred to her and Venus as “the Williams brothers.” Her bodysuit was banned. She claims she’s the subject of far too many drug tests. The USTA had to apologize for a string of bad calls in 2004, she was called for a foot-fault at crunch time against Kim Clijsters in 2009, and when she hit a winner against Sam Stosur in the 2011 final and shouted in celebration, she was penalized for hindrance. But the Australian cartoon is the most blatant racist attack against her.

No wonder Gillian White wrote in The Atlantic, “The support for Williams…[comes] in part because some fans have an enduring memory of how difficult it is for women of color to make it in expensive, mostly white sports.”

The controversy at the Open began when Serena was issued a code violation for coaching. Some celebrate that tennis demands extraordinary individual problem-solving. It is a unique challenge that is not only a part of its heritage, it makes tennis special. But Billie Jean King contended, “What was supposed to be a memorable moment…turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power…Osaka’s stellar play was overshadowed by an archaic tennis rule that eventually led to an abuse of power…If tennis would catch up with the 21st century and allow coaching on every point, the situation on the court would never have escalated to the level of absurdity that it did…Coaching happens all the time, at all levels of tennis. So why not just allow it?”

But the coaching controversy proved far less important than the perception that at a critically important moment in a Grand Slam final, umpire Carlos Ramos suffered what some, like Chris Evert, contended was a huge fail. Yes, Serena had been in his face. Billie Jean said, “Serena was out of line. There’s no question. No one’s saying she was a good sort. The point is he aggravated the situation.”

Some of Serena’s backers noted that rage has long been woven into the fabric of tennis. During this year’s final, Jimmy Connors’ temper was celebrated by the US Open when they replayed, on their big screen, his operatic run to the 1991 semis – a hugely popular, anger-filled display that made the US Open a must-see event and gained the USTA millions of fans and millions of dollars. Never mind that the Open’s increased popularity was in part based on Connors’ tantrums.

Just like Jimbo, in this year’s final we saw a veins-bulging, finger-wagging player. Serena called the ump “a thief.” She was intense. So was Connors, when he barked at the ump, “You’re a bum! You’re a bum! I’m out here playing my butt off – 39 – and you’re doing that?” He added, “You’re an abortion!” The crowd adored it – his bad-boy passion was celebrated. He was on the cover of Newsweek. It was hardly a surprise this year to see the US Open again showcase his fury.

Even more than Connors, John McEnroe built a career in part based on his temper. “You cannot be serious!” “Answer my question!” “You are the pits of the world!” were just a few of his offerings. He dropped F-bombs with shameless abandon. A great biography on him is entitled “A Rage for Perfection.” Nicholas Dawidoff suggested, ”McEnroe out there raging and smashing rackets could express all the displeasure at bad things in the world that [people] were too inhibited to disclose.”

Countless other men have offered aggressive rants. Even the godly Federer told the ump at the 2009 US Open final, “I don’t give a s–t what he [Juan Martin del Potro] says…Don’t f–king tell me the rules.” And he said “F–k off” at the 2013 ATP Finals. But a recent study showed that in 3,500 matches only one player, Grigor Dimitrov, had been issued a game penalty – and the Bulgarian got that when he smashed his racket three times in a row.

Certainly, Serena was in a rage and in Ramos’ grill. She’s an intimidating force. Her fury was relentless and not so pretty. Still, Billie Jean King contended, “Ramos chose to give Williams very little latitude in a match where the stakes were highest.” In other words, the ump should have given Serena a soft warning. Sally Jenkins claimed of Ramos, “He couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way…pointing a finger and using a tone of aggression…A man, sure. Ramos has put up with worse from a man.” She noted that last year, Rafa Nadal had told off Ramos without it costing him a match.

Feminists have long noted that women in the workplace learn to to be cautious and to use coded words when defending themselves. Their responses are shaped by the imposing rules of the game. At work, women are supposed to cool their emotions, while being strategic, feminine, savvy and always in control. Their futures depend on it.

Yet, of all people, the iconic Martina Navratilova objected to Serena’s display of passion and her anger at perceived injustice. Never mind that Martina so often expresses her own deeply felt outrage on political issues, and, during her playing days, was long denied the adoration of fans because she was viewed as emotional and aggressive, while her rival Chris Evert was seen to be properly calm, contained and feminine.  

In the New York Times, Martina called for a core respect: “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’…We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in…It is also on individual players to conduct themselves with respect for the sport we love so dearly.”

Hold on, some counter, “Well-behaved women don’t change history.”

Serena’s critics saw her emotionality as outrageous and out of control. They argued that the umpire was simply following the rules. And the tennis authorities circled their wagons to defend Ramos’ by-the-book approach. Many contended that Serena was unaware of the rules or the umpire’s mindset. Worse yet, they contended that she’d robbed Osaka of the glory of her triumph. Some insisted Serena should apologize to Ramos and Osaka. There were rumors that officials might boycott calling her matches.

In contrast, writer Tillet suggests, “The mounting condemnation of Williams proves that the myth of the Angry Black Woman does not simply deny black women the opportunity to express our full range of human emotions, including frustration. It also serves as a double punishment when we speak out against those injustices aimed at other people and ourselves.”

Rebecca Traister contended, “The ask of women, and most especially, of nonwhite women, since the beginning of time [is] take the diminution and injustice and don’t get mad about it; if you get mad, you will get punished for it, and then you will be expected to fix it, to make sure everyone is comfortable again.”

Tillet writes that, at the Open, Williams “was punished for showing emotion, for defiance, for being the player she has always been – driven, passionate, proud and fully human.” There, she “had liberated herself of constraint. Rather than swallow her frustrations in the face of discrimination, Williams fought back and reminded the world of her greatness. In doing so, she gave her 20-year-old vanquisher, Naomi Osaka, an even bigger victory: the right to be angry and black and a woman – on and off the court. Her rage was for the countless women silenced by sexist discrimination, not a simple pleading for herself.

“In doing so, she opened new possibilities of black womanhood not just for Osaka, but also for my daughter and the millions of black girls and women who have watched how Williams has always been the target of policing over her hairstyle, tennis outfits and body shape, and recognize that she has been forced to be a permanent outsider in a sport over which she has long reigned.”

Some view these sympathetic takes as merely indulgent apologies for bad behavior. Views are so wide-ranging. Writer Zeba Blay contends that “what happened during the match wasn’t solely political. It was deeply personal. It was human drama played out for millions…It was bigger than any narratives we can thrust upon it. The cartoon, the headlines – they’re all in keeping with a consistent and collective inability in the culture to see black women as complex and capable of expressing myriad emotions, from rage to joy to despair.”

Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper suggests, “Watching Serena play is like watching eloquent rage personified. Her shots are clear and expressive…Her victories belong to all of us…That’s kind of how it feels to be a Black woman. Like our victories belong to everyone, even though we do all the work.”

Yes, it should be said, men certainly have their own problems. They, too, are often not allowed to be fully human. They, too, can get stuck in emotional cages. Men are allowed get mad – sure, that’s okay. But they’re often taught not to feel other emotions, not to feel vulnerable, sad or scared. And goodness, “Don’t you dare cry.”

As for women, says Billie Jean King, they “are taught to be perfect. We aren’t perfect, of course, and so we shouldn’t be held to that standard. We have a voice. We have emotions. When we react adversely to a heated professional situation, far too often, we’re labeled hysterical. That must stop…Yes, Williams was heated during the match because she felt Ramos wasn’t just penalizing her, but also attacking her character and professionalism. Her true leadership and character were revealed after the match, in the trophy presentation.

“Serena’s a champion. She has done and continues to do the hard work. She was right to speak her mind, to put a voice to the injustice, and she was right to know when to call for the controversy to end…I hope every single girl and woman watching yesterday’s match realizes they should always stand up for themselves…Nothing will ever change if they don’t.”

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