In Crikey yesterday Francis Leach wrote that Rafael Nadal has “the biggest guns going around”. Francis is half right. Nadal indeed has better biceps than anyone else on the male half of the draw – but I suspect Serena Williams might best Rafa in an arm-wrestle.

Williams, who meets Nicole Vaidisova in a semi this afternoon, has other features which are larger than those of other players in the tournament.

Commenting on the physique of a black female athlete is generally regarded as no-go territory, especially when the commenter is a white male slob who pushes the scales to three digits.

But here goes.

Williams has been the star of this Australian Open so far. Coming in unseeded and unfancied after a lousy tune-up in Hobart, she rallied from a set and 3-5 down to dump tenth seed Nadia Petrova, then conquered Shahar Peer in an epic after the Israeli wunderkind came within two points of victory in their quarter-final.

However, she looks heavier than in her glorious years of tennis dominance. At that time she combined strength, technique and competitive fire with scorching court speed. Now she only has the former attributes to rely on.

Others have noted this, in less gallant terms – for example, Steve Bierley in The Guardian who wrote of her “ample frame” and that “she might be hard pressed to find an Old Glory big enough to wrap around her if she were to win the title”.

Yes, she has a large backside – but you could line up Freud, Toni Morrison, Zina Garrison and Oprah Winfrey and they would not be able to sort out the complex elements involved when the white male gaze falls on a steatopygous black female, especially one who is a phenomenal (and phenomenally strong) athlete.

Even an editorial on Black Athlete Sports Network website said she should shed “some of those EXTRA pounds. Serena isn’t ‘fat’ but she isn’t slim either these days. La Dolce Vita is not the best formula for knocking off those younger trimmer powerful resourceful female assassins on the Tour.”

And this is the nub, because she has knocked off these taut-bodied tyros all tournament – so far. If we can agree that Serena Williams is out of condition, what does it mean that she has rampaged through the Australian Open?

Does it mean that women’s tennis still lacks genuine depth? Does it mean that her mere presence on court intimidates some opponents into submission? Does it mean that she is a player of such greatness that she can fight, think and bludgeon her way to victory despite the handicap of carrying extra pounds around the court?

Or is the whole issue more about fear and hatred and less about the commitment of an individual to training? Certainly the Williams sisters have been subject to hate and derision on a scale unmatched by their contemporaries and perhaps only comparable to that experienced by Martina Navratilova.

Then again, maybe this is much ado about zilch. As has been noted, the 2007 Women’s Tennis Association Official Guide to Professional Tennis lists Williams’s weight as 61kg.

Peter Fray

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