The first known tennis player is Louis X, King of France in the 12th century. After a long game of tennis Louis drank so much cooled wine that he died. Is it possible to think of a more pretentious way to go out? God forbid Louis put any ice in that wine. Tennis remained popular with the colonialist elites, traveling from Charles V of France to Henry VIII of England. France opened up tennis to the public in the year 1925, for those who could afford the equipment that is.
By 1995, the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) had entered the scene in the United States. The two have dominated the sport for two and a half decades, with Venus becoming one of the best tennis players ever, and Serena becoming perhaps the greatest athlete we have ever witnessed. The two have paired up as an unstoppable doubles team and dueled for gold in memorable singles matches.
Tennis, so dominated by the white male aristocracy, has not given way easily to its new queens. The pair became known as “The Williams Brothers”—a ‘intersectional’ dig at the too masculine (i.e. too black) sisters. Venus singlehandedly achieved equal pay for women prize winners with her powerful essay in The Times, written the night before Wimbledon, 2006. The Williams sisters boycotted The Indian Wells tournament for 14 years after the crowd hurled racial slurs. Serena elaborates: “I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob. I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match. … There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word nigger a couple times, and I knew. I couldn’t believe it.”
Tennis, unlike its more populist cousin soccer, is a place for quiet country clubbers. Yet when the Williams sisters become involved, the whiteness of a MAGA rally roars from its belly. They say its a sport for all white outfits, but maybe it would better read a sport for all white outbursts. Indeed, a dress code banning “form fitting” clothes was enforced after Serena donned a Black Panther inspired jumpsuit that clung tightly to her curvy and muscular frame.
Yet all the focus has been on Serena’s particular “temper tantrum” where she called out an umpire’s double standard of punishing female players. Serena is accosted for her pleas to the umpires while madmen like John McEnroe achieve a cult status for their tirades against tennis umpires. Such is always the double standard for the ways one can respond to authority figures. It reminds me of the all too common trend of white suburban boys blasting N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” without a cop within 20 miles and without any knowledge of Dr. Dre’s history of domestic violence.
A large part of me cares little about the latest controversy though, for it ignores Serena’s awe-inspiring comeback from childbirth at age 36. Serena nearly died from childbirth because of blood clots. She had told the doctors that she believed she was suffering from a pulmonary embolism, but they did not believe her, sound familiar? Of course black women are much more likely to die in childbirth and that is in part because they are not believed by their physicians.
No matter. Serena battled back to play in the U.S. Open eight months later. Despite noticeable rust and over 20 years of professional tennis wear and tear, Serena was still easily the best player on the court. It wasn’t until the final where she was beaten, to heavy boos. She reassured the victor (another woman of color by the name of Naomi Osaka) that the crowd was not booing Osaka.
The crowd of course was booing Serena, they have always been booing Serena. Serena is simply not King Louis X. What is a crowd full of yuppies supposed to do when Serena screams with passion after overpowering her lily white size zero mini skirted opponents? Recoil or rejoice? Yet the picture becomes more confusing when Williams reveals herself to be master of strategy and skill—just as much a chessman as a jumper or runner. Just as much a talent as a ‘natural’. Serena relentlessly plays on her advantages, pushing players further and further to the edges of the court as her well-paced shots lead them. Some combination of grit, balance and placement propels Serena to victory.
A superior mind and body do take Serena far, but it is her heart that keeps us coming back. Not only is she a graceful winner and loser (the few times she loses). But she is simply alive. In an atmosphere drained of spirit, Serena disrupts with pure joy. When Serena loses her temper, it is an expression of passion for the art she has put on display. This conviction for life, for art, for anything at all, is lost on the stupefied audience. Come across an average day of Serena and you are most likely to see grace, humility, power, craftsmanship, beauty, joy and enthusiasm.
With the butt Kim Kardashian has payed for, the tan Donald Trump could never afford, the grace Barack Obama made us all pay for, and the brain Elon Musk will soon be making us all pay for, it is Serena’s heart that sets her apart.
Perhaps I should not feel so sorry for her detractors, no matter how many racist cartoons they draw. Yet I feel sad they are missing the greatness that is right in front of them. The greatest (and only) show in tennis. In tennis, zero points is scored as “Love”. So if Serena continues to get zeroes from tennis, consider her worthy of love. Serena has not only conquered the sport of tennis, she has eclipsed it.