Ser­ena the supreme athlete has to rise above stereo­types whether she’s right or wrong

Through­out an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer she has been treated dif­fer­ently, writes Nosheen Iqbal

The Observer - Sport - - Tennis -

Asa ju­nior ten­nis player, Naomi Osaka was taught to look away if her op­po­nent got an­gry or fought with the um­pire. She was trained to block out dis­trac­tions, to ig­nore the noise and fo­cus on her game. Still, the 20- year- old went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show this week un­able to avoid the fury that erupted off court fol­low­ing her stun­ning US Open vic­tory over Ser­ena Wil­liams. Who could?

“In my mind, I wanted to know what was go­ing on,” she said, of the mo­ment Wil­liams de­manded an apol­ogy from the um­pire Car­los Ramos. “I couldn’t hear and I was look­ing away, I re­ally wanted to turn around but I didn’t.”

If you strip away the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion – the ac­tual ten­nis, say – the dis­cus­sion of what hap­pened at the fi­nal of the US Open has ig­nited the ten­nis hard­core, the fair- weather fans and those mer­rily ig­no­rant of the sport al­to­gether. Whether Wil­liams was right or wrong in be­ing upset at what she con­sid­ered un­fair calls has al­most – al­most – be­come by the by.

Whether she was pe­nalised dif­fer­ently or more harshly be­cause she is a woman, a dark- skinned black woman, has po­larised the cov­er­age fur­ther.

It is faintly ridicu­lous to pre­tend that Ser­ena Wil­liams hasn’t suf­fered prej­u­dice both on and off court through­out her ca­reer; it is well es­tab­lished that the num­ber of bad and er­ro­neous calls made against her was one of the pri­mary rea­sons Hawk- Eye cam­eras were in­tro­duced to the game. The crudely racist de­pic­tion of her by an Aus­tralian an car­toon­ist this past week – and d it is racist, let us count the many ways ays in a mo­ment – has been a stan­dard ndard she has en­dured since she turned ned pro­fes­sional at 16.

Wil­liams is the best and worst rst ex­am­ple there is of the con­cept t of “misog­y­noir”. This is the term, coined by the aca­demic Moya Bai­ley, used to de­fine the way in which the dou­ble blow of racism and sex­ism in­ter­sect and dam­age. As a port­man­teau, it may have the

Wil­liams’s story ex­em­plifi es ‘ misog­y­noir’, where racism and sex­ism in­ter­sect

whiff of a ter­ri­bly named cabaret show, but misog­y­noir is a deeply bleak re­al­ity . It ex­ists both within black and brown com­mu­ni­ties as well as out­side them and is a spe­cific and unique form of prej­u­dice ex­pe­ri­enced by black women and dark- skinned black women es­pe­cially.

Think of the way black women are rep­re­sented, for one, in pop­u­lar cul­ture. The stereo­types, the crass and em­bar­rass­ing gifs and memes shared on­line: the an­gry black woman, the sassy best friend, the hy­per­sex­u­alised booty. Look at that car­toon of Ser­ena Wil­liams again and con­sider how her rows on court are char­ac­terised as epic, ag­gres­sive melt­downs and how John McEn­roe’s have be­come cute. It is an un­com­fort­able truth, but it is sim­ply un­ac­cept­able to turn away, to block it out and ig­nore it.

At 36, Ser­ena Wil­liams is the great­est athlete of all time, which isn’t even an opin­ion any more rather than a state­ment of fact. Her mag­nif­i­cence isn’t sim­ply wit­nessed in the 23 grand slam wins ( in­clud­ing one while preg­nant ) but in the way she of­ten makes it look easy. In grace, strength and beauty with a racket, she’s peer­less. But this comes in spite of the way she is treated and per­ceived, not be­cause it’s a fair game.

Wil­liams may be preter­nat­u­rally gifted but she has put in re­lent­less hours to be­come the pin­na­cle of black ex­cel­lence. Anec­dotes about hers and Venus’s child­hood in Compton are well doc­u­mented – the sis­ters were raised to never take any­thing for granted. Fa­mously, their fa­ther, Richard, would bring in “bus- bus loads of kids” from dif­fer­ent scho schools to sur­round the courts his daugh­ters d prac­tised on and cuss them out, do their worst, use the N-N word, sim­ply to build their resi re­silience. This may be at the ext ex­treme end of clas­sic brown par par­ent­ing but it did mean the Wi Wil­liams sis­ters knew they had tow to work much harder than their wh white, blonde peers in the game to sur­vive.

And so the car­toon proves. De­fend­ers of this pe­cu­liar form of so- called satire have been vit­ri­olic about the re­sponse to the Her­ald Sun. Why can’t you stop mak­ing a thing of ev­ery­thing, comes the out­rage to the out­rage. Does ev­ery­thing have to be about iden­tity pol­i­tics, comes the eye- roll. Well, one would love to not have to point it out all the time, ex­cept an ac­tual news­pa­per deemed it fi t to pub­lish a draw­ing of a grotesquely of­fen­sive Sambo car­i­ca­ture lifted from Jim Crow and have the nerve to call it Ser­ena Wil­liams. To ham­mer home the point, your av­er­age nice white blonde lady was drawn in as her op­po­nent slash vic­tim. This de­spite the fact, of course, that Naomi Osaka is a Haitian- Ja­panese woman of colour and Ser­ena Wil­liams is her hero.

“What did she say to you?” Ellen DeGeneres asked Osaka, of her mo­ment with Wil­liams af­ter the match. “What do you think she said?” quipped Osaka. Male play­ers los­ing in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions – McEn­roe, An­dre Agassi – have of­ten been pre­sented to us as pas­sion­ate, de­ter­mined, out­spo­ken. The nar­ra­tive on­line has shaped Wil­liams as an ag­gres­sive, hys­ter­i­cal, rant­ing night­mare. The truth, Osaka told DeGeneres, was : “She said that she was proud of me and that I should know the crowd wasn’t boo­ing at me .”

Wil­liams may have lost it, she may have en­dured far more crit­i­cism and racism and sex­ism than most in her ca­reer, but her grace and dig­nity win.


Af­ter her de­feat b by Naomi Osaka in i the US Open Ope fi nal, Ser­ena Wil­liams told the HaitianJa­panes Ja­panese vic­tor that sh she was proud of o her. Wil­liam Wil­liams had clashed with the ump um­pire and ( be­low) the ref­eree

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