Tennis’ Love-Hate Relationship with the Revolutionary Serena Williams

Many were
tuned-in to Serena Williams’ Calendar Slam run as a historic cultural and sporting moment. If she had won the US Open, it would have been her fifth consecutive slam and 22nd career slam. It was not to be. Serena lost to the pressure and nerves of the moment and opponent Roberta Vinci in the semifinal 6-2, 4-6, 4-6.  At the height of her frustration she yelled, “Yes, bitch. Yes.” The GOAT was slammed, sub-tweeted and condemned for unsportsmanlike behavior; this became the slams’ narrative. As @tennismetador said,

Cursing is not a new thing in tennis. Novak in the past has yelled ‘s**k my d**k’ to the crowd. Maria’s ‘allez up your fucking asses’ till this day is always laughed over, and of course Roger himself unleashed his under a muffled breath just recently at Roland Garros.

In unpacking this unsportsmanlike narrative, one understands that Serena’s crime was not cursing, but disrupting and revolutionizing the game while black. On court, Serena operates in what one may call stream of consciousness play; it is aggressive, confrontational and defiant, but respectful. Off court she is rarely a risk-taker; her words and deeds are much more conservative and mindful of the weight of a black body in America. Her person has not afforded her opportunities for much recklessness, and as her retirement nears, she is more concerned with likeability, branding and her legacy.

The biggest misnomer is that we know who Serena is on or off court. Her public persona is nebulous at best. She rarely answers a question in press. She winks, side-eyes, feigns interest, pleads ignorance, contradicts herself, and shares politically correct views. One wonders if she were as free as one with white privilege if she would be so differential to Sharapova, would she be more direct in her press responses, would she break free of the likeability loop? Yes she is no Russell Wilson, packaged and branded for corporate consumption, but she also has yet to appear truly free and equal to her colleagues who do not have to content with race in America.

Serena’s race cannot be separated from her game or legacy. The analysis of her game has been slow, and incomplete or limited by white privilege. For example, Tom Perrotta believes that, “Williams’s speed and power have long obscured other, quieter attributes.” One may argue that tennis fans and journalists alike were blinded by what bell hooks coined, “white supremacy capitalist patriarchy”. Race obscured her talents. This has resulted in three waves of narratives which are less about her maturity as a player and more about analysts’ ability and willingness to look beyond tradition and comfort. First wavers bemoaned her power and athleticism as a one-dimensional power game.  Second wavers became enamored with her serve but cautioned that her game began and ended with it. Third wavers highlighted her re-dedication and complete game at the direction of her new coach. Prize-winning poet Claudia Rankine, “wondered if his [Mouratoglou] coaching has been an antidote to negotiating American racism, a dynamic that informed the coaching of her father, Richard Williams.” If nothing else, Mouratoglou has afforded journalists a view into Serena’s game that they had not previously had or wanted with Richard Williams.

When Serena and Venus first joined the tour, their form, game and black bodies were often ridiculed and dismissed. Fifteen years later their games are spoken about with reverence though often begrudgingly. It is now widely accepted that Serena has changed if not revolutionized the women’s game. Some of the acknowledgement Serena now receives can be likened to an Honorary Oscar. It is nice, but it can feel disingenuous and revisionist. There is often an uneasiness with which journalists and players talk about Serena. Their discomfort isn’t with the notoriety she brings to the game. It is the changes she has ushered in and her refusal to read or use the script they have written. They blame her for the loss of the serve and volley as much as the lost of old traditions which had long permeated the game. So small infractions are magnified, and behaviors regularly demonstrated by others are unacceptable from Serena. It was no surprise when during the US Open’s Women’s Final tennis commentator and legend Chris Evert said, “What I like about this championship is that it was not all about power… or poor sportsmanship like we have seen.” Serena created an opportunity for the old tennis guard to revisit a time when brown bodies had to act in ways that made the majority comfortable. It was a time when the majority defined the style of play.

Oracene and Richard’s approach to tennis prepared their daughters for the challenges and rigors of the sport. Consider the confidence with which Serena strolls onto and around a court, the mental fortitude during matches and the athleticism-power and movement-she displays. They even famously decided against Junior tennis and presumably opted for lighter and more strategic scheduling to ensure their children’s balance and well-being. But it is the uniqueness and early preparation of her strokes that is most noteworthy, especially her serve. As JA Allen notes, “When the Williams sisters emerged on the scene in the late 1990s as teenagers, the women’s game changed forever. The serve became more than getting play underway, it became a weapon—the underpinning of the new power game in women’s tennis.”  Serena was successful with a power game, but she also used variety when she needed. Take a look at her 1999 win over Graff. Her tennis IQ has never been insufficient and her mental game is second to none. She recently told Claudia Rankine, “I’m a really amazing thinker on the court. I can be stuck and I can wiggle my way out.” This is one of the few emphatic statements Serena has ever made and it succinctly describes her game.

Eight ways Serena’s game has changed women’s tennis:

  1. Serve-from a game starter to a weapon.
  2. Preparation-early racket preparation and anticipation.
  3. Forehand-open stance forehand.
  4. Return-inside the baseline returns.
  5. Athleticism-improved physicality and movement.
  6. Independence-mental fortitude and no court coaching.
  7. Scheduling-lighter and more strategic.
  8. Diversity and inclusion

To weigh the impact Serena has had on the game, look at the aggressive, athletic and smart games of the up-and-coming stars. Vandeweghe, Keys, Muguruza, Pliskova, Bencic, Stephens, Bouchard and Duval have had breakthroughs in the last couple years. And though their games are still inconsistent, they all have big games. It is important to note that their serves are not just game starters; they can all place an ace. Interestingly, many of their individual strengths are evident in Serena’s game: ie, Bouchard’s early returns, Stephens’ movement, Keys’ Power, etc…  Despite the clear imprint Serena’s game has had on the women’s game it is clear that tennis at large would be happier if  Serena’s talents and popularity were packaged in the body of a six foot blue-eyed blond.

Tennis’ relationship with Serena is fraught with tension as change is difficult for revolutionists and counter-revolutionists. In a culture where Miley Cyrus can exist, indeed soar, but Azealia Banks flatlines, it isn’t difficult to understand that black bodies, especially those of women, are still expected to adhere to politics of respectability, forgiveness and likability. Serena’s race, gender, class, and approach, on and off-court, has forced tennis to hold-up a mirror to itself and take accountability for its actions. Tennis was not ready for Serena’s revolutionary game or person, but her mere presence will make it easier for the next black body. She has revolutionized the women’s game and kept American tennis alive. Will it take five years of retirement and an International Tennis Hall of Fame nomination for the love to outweigh the hate that the sport of tennis has for Serena?

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