The Oprah Interview: The Tennis Connection

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Bill Simons

During World War II my mother traveled from Montreal to London to help with the wartime ambulance corps. In 1953 my parents went to England to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Being someone who was lucky enough to cover Wimbledon every year for decades meant that I spent 1/26th of my year in Britain. Plus, one branch of my family lives in London and another lives in the English countryside.

In 2001, I was fortunate to be the only American to cover a royal fundraiser featuring John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg on a Buckingham Palace tennis court. What a thrill.

Not surprisingly, I’m not only intrigued by Wimbledon, I love Britain: its culture, its writers, its traditions, its humor and its enchanting quirkiness. I relish comparing the two Anglo nations in my world – Mother England and my America.

So after Oprah’s controversiial interview of the decade with royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, I eagerly emailed a British writer friend.

He replied that he’d experienced “jaw-dropping astonishment that in 2021 a self-respecting country can still give so much news space in apparently serious media to what’s effectively a soap opera. I don’t denigrate soap operas, they are interesting forums for exploring human issues, but they’re not of profound importance. The British royal family is not of profound importance either.” Wow.

Then a close friend of mine emailed her sister about the issues raised in the interview. Her sister replied, “Who cares?” Clearly the Meghan-Harry interview was mere fluff. And obviously royalty had nothing at all to do with tennis.

Yes, in 1977, the tournament’s centenary year, Queen Elizabeth presented the Wimbledon trophy to Virginia Wade. And in 2010, after a gap of 33 years, the tennis-averse monarch made a surprising and astounding appearance at Wimbledon. There she watched Andy Murray play and lunched with, among others, Serena and Federer, who sat next to the queen. Later, in a press conference, the Swiss said the Queen was very pleasant and, with a wink, insisted that the royal had given him a tennis tip: “She said I should hit more backhands down the line.” Of course, Queen Elizabeth’s sporting passion is horse racing, and she adores dogs. Oh, well. But Princess Diana would regularly come and watch at Wimbledon. She played with Stefanie Graf and, in a curious incident, fended off Caribbean paparazzi with her Prince tennis racket.

Similarly, Prince Charles’ second wife, Camilla, loves to visit Wimbledon each year and I enjoy standing close to the royal as she greets ball persons and VIPs on the players’ terrace.

After Oprah’s controversial classic, some wondered why the couple who wanted privacy even gave the interview, how could Meghan not know what she was getting into and did the duo have to be so critical of their family. But two of Meghan’s most prominent celebrity defenders were tennis icons. Billie Jean King said, “Among the revelations from the interview is Meghan’s struggle with mental health. Her honesty will hopefully lead to more acceptance and more help for those who need it.”

Serena, who’s been a close friend of Markle for years, had a prominent place at the American’s royal wedding and sat just a lob away from the queen herself. Meghan and Kate Middleton famously sat and chatted in Wimbledon’s Royal Box for both the 2018 and 2019 women’s finals, when Serena lost to Angie Kerber and Simona Halep. Plus Meghan saw Williams fall in a third Slam final in 2019, when she sat in Serena’s box at the US Open, as her friend lost to Bianca Andreescu.

Like Markle, Serena has a Caucasian husband, and when Serena was pregnant, Ilie Nastase asked a poisonous question that predated a similar one that Harry and Megan reported. Referring to Serena’s as yet unborn child, the crass Romanian cruelly commented, “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?”

It’s hardly surprising that after the Oprah interview, Serena issued this statement: “Megan Markle, my selfless friend, lives her life and leads by example with empathy and compassion. She teaches me every day what it means to be truly noble. Her words illustrate the pain and cruelty she’s experienced.

“I know first hand the sexism and racism institutions and the media use to vilify women and people of color to minimize us, to break us down and demonize us.

“We must recognize our obligation to decry malicious, unfounded gossip and tabloid journalism. The mental health consequences of systemic oppression and victimization are devastating, isolating and all too often lethal.”

Any student of modern tennis knows the devastating effect of abuse and emotional isolation that have long been a shadow over the game. Jelena Dokic, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati all come to mind.

Of course, the Oprah interview was not only about women. The evolution of Prince Harry was on full display. His emotional intelligence was on display, it brought to mind the growth and outspokenness of tennis’ leading male feminist – the pride of British sports, Sir Andy Murray.

Critics had their points. Why didn’t Meghan see it coming?  Still at its core Oprah’s interview revealed the strength of a young woman confronting an entrenched institution and baked in, problematic traditions. Tennis knows a thing or two about that sort of thing. The sport that’s showcased Alice Marble, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Martina Navratilova, the Williams sisters, Li Na, Katrina Adams, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka has long been a cradle for women who’ve gone against the grain and shouted loud, “We will be heard!”

But of course the Oprah interview had nothing at all to do with tennis. Right?

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