July 13, 2015

Serena Williams and the Fear of a Dominant Black Woman: '.... itís surprising that Williamsís story of picking up a tennis racquet in Compton and ending up the greatest womenís tennis player of all time hasnít been turned into a homily on Americana. ďIf Serena were smaller, lighter, and less connected to her roots she would probably be more popular,Ē says Kendall. ďBut racism means that many Americans look at her refusal to be ashamed of coming from the inner city, her rejection of European beauty aesthetics, and her spectacular record and see a negro that doesnít know her place.Ē'

posted by rumple to tennis at 12:17 PM - 13 comments

I see this in comment sections of online articles:

"Gorilla" because of her body size (even though sister Venus, who's much thinner, gets the same racial treatment).

"She's a man" (unless one gets breast and hip augmentation, very few male-to-female transsexuals develop B-cup or larger breasts and wide hips).

"She's ugly" (even though she's attractive in tennis or regular clothing).

That her refusing to be "ashamed" to come from the inner city, she's one of many success stories to come out of our inner cities.

I believe the first one clearly is racial; the others are from those who want to criticize but don't want to be seen as racist.

posted by jjzucal at 01:06 PM on July 13

Serena Williams should be celebrated for becoming a champ with an atypical body type. There are lots of girls who will never be described as willowy and some of them will see a role model who rules her sport and became comfortable with her own looks after a struggle in youth.

I don't know that racism is holding her back much any more, in terms of how the public receives her spectacular career.

Because of her greatness and the limited number of years she's expected to have left on top, Williams is highly popular within tennis and received a lot of love from the Wimbledon crowd this year.

posted by rcade at 01:40 PM on July 13

Yeah, the second comment on the Daily Beast article is:

I'm sure she has a prosperous future as leading spokesperson for Purina Gorilla Chow.

I flagged this yesterday but they haven't changed it.

I'm not sure racism is holding her back in a sporting sense anymore. Clearly she doesn't get the endorsements she perhaps would get otherwise. I find the central thesis that she is not more celebrated as a classic American story of an "unlikely rise against the odds from humble roots to dominate the world sporting scene" to be fairly compelling though. If she was a white woman from a backwoods Kentucky holler you can bet there'd be much more made of the character traits and hard work that got her to where she is. Instead she's commonly viewed as simply a contextless freak athlete when, as the article says, any of the top tennis players are also freak athletes by definition.

posted by rumple at 03:23 PM on July 13

But racism means that many Americans look at her refusal to be ashamed of coming from the inner city, her rejection of European beauty aesthetics, and her spectacular record and see a negro that doesn't know her place.

Given Europe's deep problems with racism and a whole whack of sports, and the Russian federation president last year getting canned for a bunch of racist and sexist crap about Serena, I don't feel like it's far to label this as an American problem. Sharapova's huge dominance in endorsements over Serena is not just occurring in America - that's a worldwide phenomenon. So while it may not cost her wins, the fact that we can celebrate Wimbledon embracing arguably the best female tennis player of all time well as a victory is telling.

I also find it really intereresting how, in the American narrative, we tend to see a lot of "overcoming" the inner city narrative, but very little "overcoming" the deep South narrative. If we're talking about crime, poverty, lack of education, etc., it seems to me a lot of white athletes emerging from Alabama get to skirt this stuff (or get to show pride in the "authentic" places they come from) vs. every black athlete needing to act as though they thrived despite the place they came from.

posted by dfleming at 03:40 PM on July 13

If she was a white woman from a backwoods Kentucky holler you can bet there'd be much more made of the character traits and hard work that got her to where she is.

Probably, but at this point in Serena's career, stories of her upbringing are old news to most people. The legend of an athlete's rise is less relevant when the athlete is at the pinnacle of a career or on the way back down.

posted by rcade at 03:46 PM on July 13

If Serena pulls off the calendar grand slam, that will put her right up there with Steffi Graf as the #2/#3 female tennis player of all time.

It would take a HELL of a late career run to match Navratilova (59 grand slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles).

It really is amazing that she doesn't get more attention outside of the tennis world. She's shown to the world that she can be both competitive/driven/ruthless and funny/exuberant/playful. The fact that she's fantastic in front of a microphone, a fashion template, and willing to speak her mind about almost everything, makes me think that someone should snatch her up the moment she retires and get her in front of a camera for tennis commentary.

posted by grum@work at 03:56 PM on July 13

She's shown to the world that she can be both competitive/driven/ruthless and funny/exuberant/playful.

Did you see her balance the Wimbledon championship plate on her head and walk several steps after winning this year?

posted by rcade at 04:21 PM on July 13

Did you see her balance the Wimbledon championship plate on her head and walk several steps after winning this year?

That, and her delayed celebration when she got back to her seat after winning.

posted by grum@work at 04:42 PM on July 13

If Serena pulls off the calendar grand slam, that will put her right up there with Steffi Graf as the #2/#3 female tennis player of all time.

It would take a HELL of a late career run to match Navratilova (59 grand slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles).

It would have taken a HELL of late career run for Pedro Martinez (219 career wins) to match Gaylord Perry (314 career wins) on the list of all-time starting pitchers.

Navratilova remains the most decorated female player of all time, but best (measured by most dominant in the event (singles) by which individual greatness is and should be measured) is a two-horse race between Graf and Serena.

posted by holden at 11:16 PM on July 13

That's an interesting point, but I think you do the comparison & Navratilova a disservice by comparing her to Gaylord Perry. He's a borderline Hall of Famer, she's an inner circle one.

posted by yerfatma at 08:36 AM on July 14

I intentionally was being a bit on the nose with that one. My point was just that using the criteria of total grand slam titles won and including doubles and mixed doubles probably flies in the face of what most people would select as the criteria for all-time greatness (although in grum's defense, not sure he ever really used any other adjective/descriptor to describe what constitutes #1).

posted by holden at 09:19 AM on July 14

I feel that Navratilova's sustained excellence over four decades in all available disciplines (singles/doubles/mixed doubles) is what makes her the #1. If you go by "peak" performance (leaning on singles play), then I have no problem with rating Graf (and/or Williams) higher than Navratilova.

posted by grum@work at 10:42 AM on July 14

That's a fair point, and was what I assumed you were getting at. Navratilova gets best all-around/most-decorated women's tennis player of all time, while Graf or Williams is the greatest singles player of all time. In the same way one might look at swimmers and quibble on all-time rankings based on medals/world records across individual disciplines, relays, etc.

posted by holden at 10:50 AM on July 14

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