Why Serena Williams’s refusal to be silenced should be an inspiration for all of us
The world may be afraid of women loudly seeking justice, but the tennis star is helping to change that
Irecognized, and I think all women recognized, that particular quality in Serena Williams’s voice when she confronted chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open women’s final last weekend. “You owe me an apology,” she said, and even over the tumult of the crowd you could hear the strain in her voice. It cracked with emotion as she continued, “I have never cheated in my life.” Mr. Ramos had cited Ms. Williams for a code violation because her coach was allegedly giving her signals from the stands, a common practice in tennis. When she smashed her racquet in frustration he cited her again, giving her a point penalty. She called him a thief and a liar.
Instead of trying to de-escalate the tension, Mr. Ramos cited her for ‘’verbal abuse,” docking her a whole game.
Ultimately, Ms. Williams lost a match that she was likely to lose anyway, and the controversy should take nothing away from the excellent play of winner Naomi Osaka (Ms. Williams was also fined US$17,000 for the three code violations). At the news conference afterward, Ms. Williams said: “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ ”
Her voice was still shaking, and even if no woman out there understands exactly what it feels like to be Serena Williams, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, we know that feeling of being penalized for standing up for ourselves. Gusts of rage and injustice cyclone through your body, and you think: “Don’t let me lose it. I’m so angry that my anger is going to manifest as tears, and everyone around will call me hysterical, and then I’ll start shooting rage-lasers out of my eyes until I’m sitting alone on a pile of smoking rubble.”
Of course, Ms. Williams was right; she was being unfairly penalized by a sport that is ridiculously old-fashioned, sexist and overwhelmingly white. She is right that she has long campaigned for women’s rights to equal pay, both in tennis purses and off the court, and for racial and gender equality.
Finally, she is right that male tennis players, from talented brat Nick Kyrgios to saintly Roger Federer, have sworn at umpires and stomped around like giant babies without being punished nearly as severely. Jimmy Connors famously called one official an “abortion.” When I covered the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 2011 – a year female players were admonished for grunting too loudly – the towering Argentine Juan Martin del Potro grew frustrated during one match, took off his shoe, and hurled it out of the court. It did not make international headlines.
What’s amazing to me is not that Ms. Williams was angry, but that she isn’t angry more often, as she has every right to be. She has spent her stellar career dealing with abuses large and small that would be completely alien to a white male tennis star. Vox outlined years of these attacks in a comprehensive 2017 article: “At the same time she’s being celebrated, she’s targeted with outrageous racist and sexist comments.’’
What happened at Flushing Meadows was not a one-off, it was the culmination of years of being demeaned with racial epithets in real life and online, of being deemed less commercially valuable than blond female tennis stars, of having her body either mocked or overly sexualized. Most recently, in this year of hatred masquerading as rebellious bravery, a clueless white Australian cartoonist drew a caricature of her so grotesque that its offensiveness could be seen with the naked eye from outer space.
Most of us would be sitting in a corner sticking pins in umpire dolls, but it is a testament to Ms. Williams’s skill and drive that whatever she feels is funnelled into supreme prowess on the court, where she’s won, at the age of 36, 23 Grand Slam titles (if she’d won the U.S. Open, she would have tied Australian Margaret Court’s record for singles Slam wins). She’s come back repeatedly from injuries, and most recently a traumatic experience giving birth to her daughter.
Yet, on top of this miraculous skill, she’s also expected to be a good girl. A pleaser. I keep thinking about what Claudia Rankine wrote about Ms. Williams in a 2015 article for The New York Times: “Once recognized, black excellence is then supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks. Black excellence is not supposed to be emotional as it pulls itself together to win after questionable calls.”
If the world is afraid of women loudly seeking justice, it is doubly afraid when black women do so. There have been excellent articles, testimonials and books written on this subject, but I doubt many of them have been read by Australian cartoonists, tennis umpires or anyone else whose comfortable existence depends on seeing only what they want to see.
Now there have been reports that professional umpires might consider boycotting Ms. Williams’s matches. While I can’t imagine this happening – she is too popular with tennis fans – it fits perfectly within a pattern of institutional retribution for any acts of female insubordination. Get angry? Ask for more? Seek reparation for your assault? Prepare to face the consequences of a world that is not ready to meet those demands. As Soraya Chemaly writes in her new book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, “When women assert themselves, whether they are openly angry or not, they often encounter social opprobrium, invalidation, backlash, and punishment.”
That has been the case historically, but it finally feels as if things might be changing.
That’s partly because of a woman such as Serena Williams, who is willing to raise her voice – even if it’s shaking.
What’s amazing to me is not that Ms. Williams was angry, but that she isn’t angry more often, as she has every right to be.