Serena Williams Does Tennis a Favor
Let's hope things go better for Serena Williams, and women's tennis, than last time she played in Indian Wells, California.
On Friday, she will return to the tournament she won in 2001 but where she felt she was the target of racial abuse. Williams announced her return to what is now known as the BNP Paribas Open in an article for Time in February, explaining that while the events of that year "haunted me for a long time ... a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different."
What happened in 2001 depends on whom you ask. Serena was then 19, ranked sixth in the world, and set to face her 20-year-old sister, Venus, ranked third, in the semifinal. It was a highly anticipated match, the sixth time the sisters had faced each other in the pros. But just minutes before play was to start, Venus defaulted due to tendinitis, automatically advancing Serena to the final.
Speculation abounded that the women's father, Richard, had fixed the match. Like most highly credible conspiracy theories, this one had its roots in a highly credible tabloid: the National Enquirer. Yet fans ate up accusations that something sinister had occurred. When Serena met Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd broke longstanding tennis etiquette and booed her at every turn, except when they were cheering her every unforced error. Richard and Venus claim they were racially heckled in the stands.
By their very presence, the sisters have long exposed racism and elitism in tennis. Their consistent dominance in a sport with historical ties to European nobility caused some to lament a lack of "depth" in the women's field. Critics jumped on Serena's outburst at the 2009 U.S. Open as evidence of her "lack of respect" for the game. (Heaven forbid a tennis player get emotional on the court.) The amount of on-court racial abuse the sisters have suffered is proportional to their remarkable success.
And don't forget the sexism: the body-shaming by those who would rather female tennis players be dainty than athletic. In October, a Russian tennis officially referred to them as the "Williams brothers." In her Time piece, Serena notes the WTA punishment of the official as evidence of how far the sport has come, but that these notions persist speaks to how far it has yet to go.
Traditionally aristocratic sports have tended to keep up their exclusionary elements to maintain their upper-crust constituencies. But when you pull back that gilded veneer, tennis is at its core little more than entertainment -- and for most of this millennium, the Williams sisters have been its top performers.
Serena's return to Indian Wells isn't a sign that she's "matured" -- it's a win for tennis. It's a magnanimous nod to the strides the sport has made, with a simultaneous acknowledgment of her continued role in that progress.
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