This weekend’s US Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka will be remembered for everything but the match itself.

By now, the chain of events that overshadowed 20-year-old Osaka’s groundbreaking triumph over her former idol are well-known. Portuguese umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code violation for allegedly receiving coaching instructions. When Williams smashed her racket in frustration, she received a point penalty. The point penalty was followed by a game penalty, after Williams confronted Ramos, and labelled him a “thief”.  

‘A disservice to women’s rights’?

Williams’ incendiary post-match press conference, where she accused Ramos of sexism, sent the outrage machine into overdrive. For some, Ramos’ puritanical adherence to the rulebook was yet another reminder of the gendered double standards tennis places on its female competitors. Others lined up to voice their dismay at William’s bad-sportsmanship and flagrant disrespect for the rules. “She’s doing a terrible disservice to women’s rights, to the MeToo movement, to gender equality,” journalist Caroline Wilson said on ABC’s Offsiders.

Irrespective of whether the umpire’s ruling was correct (and there is evidence that broken rackets and heated arguments do not see similar sanctions placed on male players), Williams, has a lot to be mad about. Her anger didn’t begin in the final set at Flushing Meadows, and to properly understand its source, we must look back over the narrative arc of a career pockmarked by racism and sexism. Serena’s rise is a modern American miracle — a story of a black girl from Compton who took on a sport dominated by the genteel, affluent and white, and made it her own. And like any modern American story, the malevolent hum of racism whirs in the foreground.

Serena’s rise and the black body

In the 1990s, Williams’ father Richard started pulling his daughters out of junior tournaments after overhearing the hushed racial barbs from other parents. By the turn of the millennium, as both sisters broke their way into the top 10, doubts about the legitimacy of their assent began to circle. An unsubstantiated throwaway claim by John McEnroe during Wimbledon in 2000 began the vicious rumour that matches between the sisters were fixed.

A year later, this rumour turned the normally polite crowd at the Indian Wells Masters into an ugly mob, as Williams’ victory was soured by a ceaseless chorus of jeers and racial slurs. Both Williams and her father heard the n-word. The fans, according to Williams’ mother Oracene Price, were “taking off their hoods”. A 19-year old Serena spent hours crying in the locker rooms after the final, and didn’t return to Indian Wells for 14 years.

As Serena kept on winning, the language used to describe her frequently overlooked her on-court exploits, instead fixating on her body.

In a 2006 Herald Sun piece, sports scientist Dr Peter Larkins stated that the “African American race … have this huge gluteal strength”. She has been described as “a monster truck that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas” (Rolling Stone), “the alpha female in a pride of lions” (The Telegraph) and, most bizarrely, an “oozing pumpkin” (Fox Sports), to name just a few.

In 2014, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation referred (apparently in jest) to the “Williams’ brothers”. Other pros, such as Caroline Wozniacki, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have all mocked her physique by stuffing their shirts with towels. Her choice of attire too is also policed — at this year’s French Open, Williams was forbidden from wearing a black catsuit designed to prevent blood clots. In response, Bernard Giudicelli, president of the French Tennis Federation, took the opportunity to lecture her about respect.

Today, Williams is the unquestioned queen of the sport. She has 23 grand slams and a net worth in the hundreds of millions. This dominance is, no doubt, why the finale of the US Open left such a bitter taste in so many people’s mouths. Maybe Serena could have been a little bit nicer. Maybe she should have coolly accepted Ramos’ zealous, black-letter enforcement of the rules. But after years of barbs, injustices, and double standards, how much more deferential politeness can we expect? 

Peter Fray

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