Photo by AFP from the Sydney Morning Herald. Serena Williams just won her 14th Grand Slam title and her fifth Wimbledon title. At thirty years old, she truly has no peers on the tour today. Her closest competition would be her sister, Venus, with seven titles. The Williams sisters have won ten of the last thirteen Wimbledon titles. I started watching tennis just when the Williams sisters were making a name for themselves on the WTA. I didn’t like them then. I have much respect for them now. I was part of the camp that felt that they were brash and arrogant, and I suppose, un-tennis. The more that I have watched them mature and collect title after title I realize what truly significant forces they are for women’s tennis. I use the word respect because that’s what it is. I would not call myself a fan of the Williams sisters (but there are few players that I am actually a fan of on either tour today) and I certainly don’t agree with the way that Serena handles herself on court sometimes; but, I must tip my hat to them for overcoming all odds to be two of the most successful athletes in the world, man or woman. Yet, with all of their successes do they really represent equal opportunity regardless of race OR are they exceptions to the rule?
Cole & Andrews (2001) have argued that Tiger Woods proves the effectiveness of American color-blindness, which is the counter argument to affirmative action. In other words, instead of recognizing that certain races are socially, economically, and politically disadvantaged, color-blindness chooses not to acknowledge race and only sees merit. Cole & Andrews (2001) explain how Woods has become “a racial sign of America’s radical racial transformation” (pg.82) (read: look we let a black man into the country club). It is argued that race adds to marketing appeal and that race is what has facilitated the ability of Woods to transcend golf (Cole & Andrews, 2001).
I would extend this argument to the Williams sisters and say that yes, much of their marketability is premised on their race. They have the ability to reach an entire demographic that had previously been left out of tennis. They transcend tennis and have become shining examples of the American Dream at work. Let’s face it, THIS is what the American Dream was built upon: work hard regardless of your circumstances and ANYONE can make it big. Sport is the perfect system where dreams can be fabricated because it is a meritocratic system, right? The best will always rise to the top, right? The presence and dominance of the Williams sisters shatters the country club image of tennis, just as Woods did for golf. No one is allowed to say that golf and tennis are racist because all you have to do is slam down a Serena Williams card or a Tiger Woods card and that’s the end of the conversation. Or is it?
Tennis is still very white. It is slowly changing, but it is still very white. Asians have made the most significant impact on the WTA top 100 (but these are Asians from Asia not Asian-Americans), and aside from the Williams sisters Sloane Stephens (currently ranked 49) is the only other black woman in the top 100. The ATP Tour isn’t much better, err blacker. We have Tsonga, Monfils and way down at #91 James Blake. Tennis is an expensive sport, which means it is not an accessible sport to most. Equipment is expensive. Training is expensive. Competition is expensive. Travel is expensive. If you were watching Wimbledon the past couple of weeks did you notice anything about the ball kids, grounds crew and lines people? They were all white, which gives you a quick snapshot of the racial divide that still exists within the British sporting system. Now this is not the same for the US Open but neither are representative of the populations that reside in each country.
Sure, we could argue:
– maybe blacks don’t like tennis as much
– maybe blacks just aren’t as good at tennis
– maybe blacks don’t train as hard
– maybe blacks don’t have the competitive mind for tennis
Or maybe it is because blacks (or any person of colour) still aren’t welcome in tennis, which is what Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, argues. Richard Williams says, “You can only be good if you have a good system behind you and not ahead of you, blocking you from getting there.” I think this is a pretty interesting statement given that his daughters are the ones who made it. One might expect this kind of thinking from the parents of the children who weren’t the cream of the crop. It would be very easy for Richard Williams to say, “Hey, my kids did it and so can yours”, rather he wants to open up a tennis academy for blacks. I’m not sure that a separate but equal academy is a long-term solution but perhaps it is a start.
Generally speaking, no one likes being the only different one. No girl likes being the only girl in shop class (speaking from experience). No boy likes being the only boy in dance class. No one likes being the only American, Canadian, or Italian in a group of any other nationality. No one likes being the only old person among a group of youth. It is horribly unbearable? No, we make do. We make friends; but, I’m pretty sure that every one of us would feel more comfortable having an ally along for the ride. Perhaps, this is why the Williams sisters have triumphed in a world that was never designed for them. They have succeeded in spite of the system, not because of it. Therefore, I wonder if Serena’s ongoing dominance is beneficial for further racial integration into tennis or if her success only solidifies institutional racism.
Cole, C.L. & Andrews, D.L. (2001). America’s new son: Tiger Woods and America’s multiculturalism. In D.L. Andrews & S.J. Jackson (Eds.), Sport stars: The cultural politics of sporting celebrity (pp.70-86). London & New York: Routledge.