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

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - EL­IZ­A­BETH RENZETTI

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.


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