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Context is Queen: A Broader View of Serena Williams

To me, there’s something truly special about tennis. It captured my imagination as a kid and, in the years since, has never loosened its grip on my head or my heart. All the drama, the struggle, the passion, the talent inherent in the game galvanized me at a time when I was wide open to intensity.

I remember once getting so caught up in the tension of a Jimmy Connors match that I flipped out and knocked a full glass of grape juice across the living room, wrecking the rug (I’m so sorry mom and dad). It was one of his classic late-match comebacks, where he was getting clearly outplayed but refused to give up. This takes incredible mental fortitude because when you’re getting beat badly it completely saps your spirit. It becomes almost natural for a player to relent so the beating will be over. But Connors just kept pumping himself up, trying new tactics, taking risks, straining to believe—and, little by little, he shifted the momentum of the match and won.

This kind of drama is built into the very nature of tennis. It’s a sport that’s scored in single increments with no time limit. Any player that’s losing by a significant margin has a chance to build a point-by-point comeback. This has happened in some of the most exciting grand slam finals in history. In 1993, after getting severely outplayed, Steffi Graf came from 4-1 down to win Wimbledon. Andre Agassi was 2 sets and 4-1 down in the French Open and gutted his way back to win in 1999. There are countless other examples.

When the momentum started to shift during that fateful Connors match, the feeling was palpable. It was like the air itself got transformed. Watching him climb back into the match from the inside out was like witnessing a spiritual pilgrimage, from the dark night of the soul to some kind of hard-fought transcendence. I was mesmerized by it and it hooked me on tennis. From there, I could appreciate what every player brought to the game—the beauty of Martina Navratilova’s catlike movement around the court, the stoic precision, and power of Ivan Lendl, the inspiration of Yannick Noah’s improbable serve-and-volley victory at the French Open. And honestly, I even grew to love when John McEnroe would berate the umpire. It was all part of the exciting and deeply personal drama of the game to me.

I was an athletic kid who adored playing sports more than watching them (tennis excepted), I would skip viewing the seventh game of the World Series if someone asked me to go hit fly balls. I loved playing kickball, hockey (winter is very long in New England), baseball, basketball (at which I sucked), football, soccer, volleyball, games I made up out of thin air, you name it. I lived to make diving catches and had little concern for my personal safety. But I was also an introvert who spent a lot of time on the adventures I experienced in books, in nature, and inside my own mind. Team sports were fun, but there was always an intangible element of fulfillment that was missing for me. When I took up tennis, it was like Br’er Rabbit getting thrown in the briar patch. Because the game occurs so deeply within your own mind, while staying tightly connected to your body, it was an athletic introvert’s delight. It was like discovering a second home. It was also very, very hard.

One of the things that’s not readily apparent when you watch professional tennis on TV is how goddamn difficult it is to be really good at it. There are so many different types of shots to master, and you need to find your own particular way of mastering them. It takes moving through a lot of failure, pain and self-doubt to get there. Tennis is an exceptionally mental game. Believing you can hit a shot is as important as the mechanics of hitting the shot itself. Without inner resources, you’re brittle as an icicle and easily shattered by your opponent. The game is also extremely physical. There’s grueling training to be done and, even with all that, on any given day, there’s someone who’s quicker, stronger, more confident, or craftier than you, regardless of their ranking or past performance. It’s extraordinarily humbling. The other thing to recognize about tennis is that, whether you have a coach or not, you’re all alone on that court. There is no teammate there to buck you up or remind you of your game plan. And every player needs reminding—because tennis is also similar to boxing:

To be a contender, let alone a champion, means developing incredible nerve, confidence, faith, bravery, skill, fortitude, passion, creativity, strategic imagination, and instinctive aggression. There is no one other than yourself who can supply these things when you need them. Your coach is in the stands. They can gesture all they want, but they have virtually no ability to penetrate your emotions or mind from that distance and have any real impact on your tactical choices. Only an in-depth conversation can do that, and most tournament rules forbid such interactions between player and coach during a match. All a player can really do is look up to their box in the stands and get a little encouragement, a fragment of a suggestion. Any experienced tennis player knows this, and the umpires do too. You have to execute in the moment you’re in, all by yourself, and that is extremely difficult.

I ask you to keep some of these things in mind while considering the context of Venus and Serena Williams when they burst onto the tennis scene in the late 1990s, virtually fully formed as top ten players. I also ask you to consider the game they were entering, not only as difficult and solitary as I described, but also intimidatingly white and upper/middle class. At the time, there were a tiny number of black players on the tour, each mild-mannered and genteel—Mal Washington, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil—all extremely talented top 20 players, vetted through the established collegiate and United States Tennis Association (USTA) system, but none dominant enough to win a grand slam title.

By contrast, the Williams sisters didn’t get trained and supported through programs of the USTA or the collegiate system, as did most promising American players. Their prescient father, Richard and their stalwart mother Oracene, had them bypass that to figure out tennis in their own particular way. So, in the minds of many in the tennis establishment, they didn’t belong to the game. They were completely off the grid. They were interlopers. And yet they strode in with all of the qualities of champions I mentioned above. With braids in their hair. From Compton, not Baldwin Hills. Leaning into their religious faith. Brazenly, unapologetically black. Like they owned the place. Like they expected to win every time they stepped on the court. Consider for a moment how absolutely amazing that was. And how disconcerting, even shocking, to many of the players, coaches, umpires, officials and other white upper/ middle-class people associated with the professional tour.

Venus and Serena have never fully described the levels of racism they faced during this period, but we know the basics. Racial slurs screamed by fans. Disparaging racial comments made by top players (Martina Hingis, for one). Racially hurtful remarks on their physique, their femininity, and their social class. They were in their teens. Do you remember the rawness of your own emotions as a teenager? How do you think that felt for them? In my estimation, they’ve been far too kind in sparing us the details. We need to hear them in the open and deal with them honestly. It has been observed that some of the incredible confidence the Williams sisters displayed in their early days as pros was at least partially a wall of defense, a preemption to deal with the disdain they knew they were being viewed with by players, coaches, officials, and many fans.

All too often, that confidence was interpreted by tennis elites as arrogance and a lack of class. Whether folks who felt this way realized it or not, this was racial code. They might as well have said “uppity” and “ghetto”. Funny thing, but I don’t remember the tennis intelligentsia having the same response when Steffi Graf stalked around the court, never gave her fellow players the time of day, offered near monosyllabic interviews, and refused to even entertain a kind word from Martina Navratilova, tennis royalty, after losing a tough match to her. They seemed to know that Graf was both shy and driven and they gave her the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad they did, but it doesn’t take savant-level vision to see that implicit bias determined that the Williams, Serena in particular, didn’t receive the same understanding or kindness. More often than not, they were in hostile territory and had only each other to lean on. It also made them vociferous in their own defense.

Serena & Venus Williams win gold in 2012 Olympics

Despite these racial and cultural challenges, the paradox is that Venus and Serena showed up at a near perfect time, during a significant shift in the stature of female players and women’s tennis as a whole. Traditionally, you could usually assume that two of the top 5 players would face off in the finals of any grand slam tournament. The field just wasn’t that deep. But by the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, more women started hitting the ball bigger and with much greater aggression.

Here, I’m thinking of Steffi Graf (whose forehand remains one of the most incredible in the history of the game), Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and, perhaps most notably, Monica Seles, whose fearlessness and ferocity off both backhand and forehand sides was completely unbelievable. She attacked the ball, going for outright winners without ever seeming to hold back with a worry she might miss. She also screamed her head off when she hit the ball, as loud as many of the men. This did not sit well. Women were not supposed to be this fierce and the push-back came quickly from other players and journalists. Seles faced complaints from opponents and violations from umpires over this issue. It had a genuine negative impact on her game. Concentration, flow, and rhythm in tennis are huge. Trying not to grunt for fear of penalty threw off Seles’ game and literally cost her several important matches (then she got stabbed and her trademark fearlessness started to wither). No one ever said a word when male players grunted at high volumes while playing—and they did so in huge numbers.

The Williams sisters’ games built off of the power tennis foundation laid by Seles, Graf and others. They, too, attacked the ball and hit huge, huger than anyone on the tour at the time. But they did this in a completely new way. Stylistic tennis tradition has players learning to get themselves sideways to the ball when they strike it. The Williams sisters didn’t do that. They hit the ball in an open stance and whipped their arms around with even greater speed and with more precarious timing than other players. It was high-risk tennis and it made them incredibly dangerous, even when they were on the defensive and pushed off court. Part of the reason they could pull it off was that their physical training was more committed and more intense than anyone else’s. They also played doubles together and, unlike others on the women’s tour who were either base-liners or serve-and-volley players, the sisters developed both capabilities, including astonishingly powerful serves. This gave them an array of tools that made them devastating AF.

Like Seles, they grunted when they hit the ball. The difference was that now no one said boo about it because post-Seles, the noise had become normalized and point penalties were no longer being issued over it. Tennis had changed just enough to allow women this extra measure of grit. But what was interesting was that the Williams didn’t do it merely to expel air and effort as Seles did. Their screams were related to the emotions they were feeling during the match they were playing. Like many of their male counterparts, they also shouted out self-encouragements to keep themselves motivated (a virtual must in a sport without teammates). This made them even more exciting to watch.

Serena would even emit funny high-pitched screams when she missed a shot, a display of humor that began, along with her increasingly dynamic play, endearing her to fans. She dug fashion and designed her own outfits. She was Internet savvy. She came off as real in interviews and seemed unconcerned when she wasn’t always her best self (and, like many male players, she often wasn’t her best self). In short, she was a genuine PERSON. Sometimes delightfully unguarded, sometimes defensive and brusque, never perfect, but always compelling.

All this talent and personality started having a major impact on the game, raising the bar on what it took for players to win big tournaments. More and more women began developing fearless, hard-hitting styles of play just to keep up with the Williams. Venus, and especially Serena, became superstars and women’s tennis began overtaking men’s in popularity. The sisters are massively responsible for this and, to this day, few commentators fully acknowledge it.

It’s helpful to place all of the in-your-face qualities of the Williams sisters in some kind of context. Serena, in particular, has always been not merely an aggressive player, but also out-front in her own defense with umpires and line judges. Downright argumentative, in fact. Many fans and commentators don’t like it, but their distaste is interesting if you consider the following:

Leading into the 70s, tennis was very polite, a wonderful sport, so genteel, and honestly, a bit boring. Steeped in its roots as a game of the overly starched European aristocracy, players showed so little emotion you could often barely tell whether they cared if they won or lost. In the U.S., the audience was predictably niche, strictly restrained upper/middle class. But as the permissive post-counterculture 70s built steam, in the men’s game a number of brash, passionate players emerged. Ile Nastase, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe. They played with fire and flair. It almost felt, especially in regard to McEnroe, that they were unruly artists as much as top-flight athletes.

Cantankerousness and even rage was a part of their game (a part of Serena’s game as well). And it wasn’t merely because they were assholes. It was because they cared. A lot. When they didn’t play up their own exacting standards, they berated themselves or pulled a Pete Townshend on their rackets. When they felt wronged or were under serious pressure from their opponents, they argued with line judges, umpires, and officials. They swore. They called people names. They made threats. They acted out. There was a time when Connors literally gave the finger to the entire crowd in a tennis stadium, turning methodically with his digit raised to each of the arena’s four sides. McEnroe’s outlandish antics are by now legendary, his honking New York accent and hilarious epithets braying across the airwaves with exciting controversy. Nastase himself had a gift for the psych-out and the creative insult. It was often ugly, but it was electrifying. These guys made tennis matter. They made it playful and exuberant. They made it feel like life or death. And they created a wonderful contrast and set of engaging rivalries with fellow players who were more mild-mannered, like the impassive Bjorn Borg.

Tennis saw its popularity grow considerably and this behavioral shift had a lot to do with it. And even though much of the behavior was technically against the rules, fans ate it up. It was hard to contain. It soon became clear that autocratic and exacting application of the code of conduct wasn’t going to work anymore. Nit-picky officiating would grind most matches to a halt and see half the audience losing interest. To deal with the changes, umpires had to engage players more in dialogue, issue warnings, and even endure a certain amount of verbal abuse. They still had to do their job and enforce the rules, but to keep things from going off the rails in high-pressure matches where it was easier for players to lose their cool, they had to become more flexible about how and when to enforce them. In short, the culture of tennis changed even as the centuries-old rules of the game remained the same. This slippage between the rules as written and the rules as enforced, which exists in all sports, had to be negotiated. Most serious tennis fans—not to mention basketball, football and soccer fans—understand slippage instinctively.

In terms of on-court behavior, women began to display as much passion on the court as men, and become more forthright in airing their grievances. On the women’s side, this has always been problematic because tennis is a culturally traditional sport. As it goes in many families and communities, women are expected to swallow their anger, not show it. As women’s tennis got bigger and more competitive, and the stakes got higher, players like Martina Hingis, Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, and Jennifer Capriati, were not demure. They were intense and outspoken. Chair umpires often had a difficult time engaging in the same back and forth with these players than they would with many male players. In cultures where female anger isn’t welcome (which is most), there’s a tendency to inflate the severity of the anger when it’s expressed. A woman will speak sharply about something and immediately be perceived as hysterical or unhinged. This characterization happened often, especially with Navratilova.

Martina Navratilova 1982

When a player is black, though, the dynamic shifts again. Particularly in the U.S., all a black person has to do is raise their voice or look at someone too directly to be deemed threatening. When a black woman gets visibly angry or stands up for herself, she tends to be deemed both hysterical and violent—often way out of proportion to her actual demeanor.

With Serena, these gender and racial stereotypes have been played out constantly. There were instances early in her career where she was so focused on a match, she mistakenly bumped into an opponent while switching sides of the court. This was quickly characterized as boorish aggressive behavior, even though the tapes reveal simple preoccupation. In one tough U.S. Open match, Serena was penalized for celebrating a winning shot a second too soon, then vilified as volatile and disrespectful when she got pissed off about the penalty. In a now infamous U.S. Open match against Jennifer Capriati, a line judge called three of Serena’s shots in a row out when, to even the untrained eye, they were clearly in. The umpire refused to overrule these calls and then Serena was decried as unruly and unhinged for arguing about it. The calls lopsided the score, derailed the match and Serena lost. I hope it’s not lost on you how each of these examples comes from finals at the U.S. Open.

Serena’s U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka a few weeks ago reveals this dynamic as well. It all started with what should have been a piece of slippage. As Serena had gotten clearly outplayed in the first set, she dug deep in the second set and found herself fighting to break Osaka and go up 3–1. Things had become very tight. For Serena, the entire match hung in the balance. If she was able to secure a significant lead against Osaka, who was continuing to play brilliant tennis, she could give herself a much needed psychological advantage. As Serena was looking fixedly down at her racquet and preparing to receive serve, her coach, knowing that she needed to change up her strategy in order to take control, was excited to see that she had won a point closer to the net, a more aggressive posture. Unable to control himself, he gestured for Serena to stay close to the baseline (where she already was). Let’s be honest here. A player of Serena’s experience and track record hardly needs this type of advice. Plus, remember what I explained earlier about the near impossibility of tactical instruction from the stands having much impact on the court.

Now, by the stickler rules, there is no coaching allowed during a match. But player/coach teams who have broken these rules have normally done something really out of bounds in this regard. A coach will make their way down to courtside during a changeover and speak loud enough for their player to hear them and engage in a conversation. This is a clear and egregious violation of the no-coaching rule.

However, a gesture from the stands that a player couldn’t see and didn’t solicit — at a moment when the flow of the match was at a crucial point — was an opportunity for the umpire, Ramos, to prioritize the drama and organic flow of the match over going full stickler on the rules. Serena received no advantage from the gestures. Ramos could have simply alerted her to what her coach did and ask that she remind her coach to refrain from making gestures from the stands. He could have done the same for Osaka, whose coach was also gesturing from her box throughout the match. This is called a soft warning and is common in a sport where most coaches do indeed gesture from the stands.

But, at this crucial part of the match, where competitive ego (Serena was getting beat by a woman 16 years her junior), a world record, the pride of a new mother who nearly died after childbirth, and millions of dollars were at stake, with a crowd that was loudly routing for Serena, he decided to double down on being a stickler and called a violation. And what did Serena do? She calmly walked over to him, modulating her voice so as not to sound aggressive, acknowledged his right to call the violation, and let him know sincerely that under no circumstances would she cheat to win.

At this point, Ramos could have been clear about his intentions with the call. He could have said, “thank you, I’m not going to assess a penalty at this stage, please let your coach know I’m watching him”. Or he could have said, “I’m very sorry but by the rules, I have to let the violation stand. Another violation and you’ll lose a point.” Instead, he responded to Serena saying she wasn’t a cheater with “I know”.

Serena mistakenly believed the matter had been resolved in her favor. She managed to break Osaka’s serve and went up 3–1. However, when Osaka was able to come back and break her serve in the next game, Serena got frustrated and smashed her racket, a second violation. Ramos waited a beat and, as the players changed sides, he issued a point penalty. Certainly, Serena should have kept her cool. Throwing her racquet down was a total McEnroe move. But tensions being what they were, she lost her temper. Plus, she didn’t know the first violation had stood. So when Ramos issued his point penalty, she was surprised and angry. She argued and, clearly rattled, got back on the court as Osaka served with an immediate 15–0 advantage due to the point penalty. With the match this tight, that point mattered and Osaka went on to win her service game. As Serena prepared to serve at 3–3, she was fuming. The match sat of the veritable knife’s edge and her lead was gone. And then Osaka broke her serve to go up 4–3.

Now up to this point, it’s impossible to say whether Serena’s personality, gender or race influenced Ramos’s behavior. He’s known as a strict interpreter of the rules, though in this instance his application of them was, at the very least, overzealous and one-sided. But the final straw struck me as classic gender/racial bias. During the changeover, Serena couldn’t let it go. Her emotions were running high. We have to admit this. She was losing and she was frustrated. She felt mistreated and maligned as a cheater. She felt she’d been deceived as well. Instead of focusing on the next game, which she desperately needed to win, she focused on Ramos. She looked him in the eye. She pointed a finger at him and said, “You owe me an apology. You stole a point from me”. She called him a liar and a thief.

She shouldn’t have done it. But, still, there was no ranting and raving. No frothing at the mouth. No swearing. No threats. She was walking away and the incident was over. Yet bang. Ramos immediately awarded the game to Osaka, making her victory a near certainty. That’s all it took. A raised voice, eye contact, a finger, and the words liar and thief. That was too much disrespect for Ramos, as mild as it was compared to any kerfuffle in a garden-variety men’s match. In fact, Ramos has heard much worse from male players in previous matches and not done a thing. As a longtime tennis fan and a not entirely ignorant white man, I know in the depths of my heart that, had Serena behaved the same way (badly) but been Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova, there would have been dialogue and resolution, not an unprecedented game penalty in the 11th hour of a grand slam final.

The uproar that followed the game penalty stopped the flow of the match in its tracks. It pretty much ended things. It destroyed any joy Naomi Osaka might have gotten from her incredible win. And it robbed Serena of a chance to fight and lose or win leaving everything on the court. As I explored earlier, seasoned tennis fans can feel when the momentum of a match has shifted and, at the moment Ramos inserted himself, such a momentum shift was occurring. Serena was fighting just like I watched Connors do all those years ago. What could have turned into an astounding second set tiebreak finish, or a third-set nail-biter, ended in chaos and controversy instead of glory for both athletes and amazing memories for fans.

And the people assembled there that night knew it. And they felt cheated. All that booing during the trophy ceremony? That crowd was not booing Serena or Naomi Osaka. They were booing Ramos and the tournament officials. Click To Tweet And what did Serena do? Fighting through tears and disappointment, she calmed the crowd in a way that only she, as superstar and tournament favorite, could. She congratulated and comforted her young opponent, who was overwhelmed and also in tears. She held her tongue and her humiliation. And, in so doing, she saved the U.S. Open from what would have been an even more embarrassing and acrimonious end to the day than it was.

Serena Williams is a person. She is not perfect. She lost her cool. She wasn’t able to be her best self at a crucial moment in a very tough match. I know that and I’m certain she knows that. But please, don’t go and tell me that being a forceful black woman, an interloper in the privileged game of tennis, in a culture determined to shut down black anger… don’t tell me that didn’t have an influence on how the umpire handled his job that day. I’ve been an American for too long. And I’m just not that naïve.

 

Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is a writer of socio-political missives, children’s books and emails. Lots and lots of emails. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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