By anyone’s standards, Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes of all time. She has won 36 grand slams and four Olympic gold medals. I appreciate that journalists are supposed to be objective and all that blah blah blahness, but truly the Latin term for Williams is Badassius amazingus.
So it’s really super that, 13 years after first achieving world number one status, the prim guardians of the tennis establishment are “coming to appreciate” her behaviour, as one British journalist put it after her sixth Wimbledon win this weekend, “bizarre” as it is. Nonetheless, this same journalist wrote a month earlier when covering the French Open, there are plenty who “hold a rather cynical view of Serena Williams’ tennis achievements”: the view that she hasn’t “always been totally focused on tennis”. This lack of focus was proved by Williams issuing a statement that day that she was too ill for a press conference before her match. Slacker Serena, that’s what we call her.
Future generations will look back at the kicking Williams got and marvel at how so many failed to appreciate an athlete we’re all privileged to watch in her prime. Throughout her career, her commitment has been doubted by journalists and former players alike, including Chris Evert, who opted for officially the most annoying form of journalism – the open letter – to convey her scepticism, and Pat Cash, who declared Williams a “lost cause”, one “obviously” without the same dedication as Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati back in, um, 2007. No one take any stock market predictions from Pat Cash, y’hear?
And if she’s not showing insufficient commitment, then she’s showing too much. She’s been repeatedly accused of cheating, despite a total lack of evidence. When Williams played her sister, Venus, at Wimbledon last week “old suspicions about the validity of their matches re-emerged”, as one British newspaper put it darkly, repeating nonsense peddled by the US sports journalist Jason Whitlock that the Williams sisters’ father decides the outcome of their matches in advance.
Last weekend, as Williams won Wimbledon for the sixth time, David Frum, senior editor of the Atlantic and former adviser to George W Bush, tweeted implying that she uses steroids, even though she is one of the most tested players in tennis. Frum later deleted his tweets. By all means, ask questions – Lord knows there has been too much credulousness in the past about successful athletes. But there is a difference between “asking questions” and continually targeting someone with repeatedly disproven insinuations. Ultimately, the message is the same as the one implied by the journalistic talk about the tennis establishment’s continuing reluctance to accept her: she does not belong here. That she happens to be a black woman in one of the last sports still dominated by white people is, of course, a mere coincidence. After all, as Martina Hingis so wisely observed years ago “Being black only helps [the Williams sisters] … they have lots of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism.’”
If Williams isn’t failing as an athlete, she’s failing as a woman, although people seem torn about whether this is because she’s too female or not female enough. Taking the former first, while female tennis players have long been a convenient means for journalists to vent their frustrated sexual desires, with endless lustful discussions of, say, Anna Kournikova’s backside, talk about Williams’ sexual attributes are invariably tinged with disgust.
When Williams wore a catsuit on the court in 2002, the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan compared her to “a working girl of a different sort”. A British journalist wrote of Williams’ backside: “I will attempt to describe [it] as discreetly as possible by simply referring to it as ‘formidable’.” Whitlock – not apparently Williams’ biggest fan – compared it to “an oozing pumpkin”. Jaime Schultz writes in a 2005 essay, “reactions to Williams’s rear end are reminiscent of responses to Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, a powerful symbol of racialized difference. Framed within a context of freakery, fascination with Baartman’s backside contributed to prevalent ideas of black female deviance and hypersexuality.”
More common are complaints that Williams is not womanly enough. Last weekend JK Rowling shot down a man on social media who described Williams as “built like a man”, but he was expressing a frequently implied opinion. Williams,one British newspaper wrote last week, “physically powerful and with a ferocious temper … cannot compete with Maria Sharapova’s blonde Siberian beauty”.
She has long been compared to animals, from gorillas to generic beasts, with one sportscaster suggesting in 2001 that she looked more suited to National Geographic than Playboy. And Williams is not immune to the jibes: on Tuesday she posted a video on Instagram in which her eyebrows are being tweezed. “Hahaha haters,” she wrote. “I still like them all natural, but you win for now lol.”
Williams is not just a remarkable athlete but an incredible woman, one in possession of more physical and mental strength than any of us can even fathom. But if anyone ever needed human proof of the maxim that black people need to be 10 times as good to earn the respect their white peers take for granted, she is it. Incidentally, about that French Open last month, where she wasn’t displaying “commitment”: she won that too. With the flu. As Williams might well say, hahaha haters.