- Serena Williams has announced that she will soon retire from tennis, ending a legendary career.
- As a black champion in a predominantly white sport, Williams faced racist attacks for decades.
- The media and tennis officials have often judged Williams more harshly than some of her competitors.
When she retires later this year, Serena Williams will be remembered as the greatest tennis player of all time. Yet, during her career, she has suffered frequent racist and sexist attacks from the media.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion stood out in the world of tennis as a black woman in a predominantly white sport, first as a teenager entering the court with beaded braids, then, as she she grew and rose through the tennis ranks, becoming known for having a more muscular figure than many of her peers.
Subject to racist tropes
Media attacks on Williams’ appearance have often played on racist tropes.
In 2001, sports radio commentator Sid Rosenberg said that Serena and her sister Venus were more likely to pose nude for National Geographic than for Playboy. Rosenberg was fired from his position on Don Imus’ radio show for his comments.
Eighteen years later, a Romanian TV host was fined by the National Anti-Discrimination Council after he compared Williams to a monkey.
In 2006, The National Post ran a column discuss Williams’ weight, including the size of his buttocks. The column included a comment that occupants of the hotel room below hers must have ‘spent the night dodging the plaster’ after the tennis player said she intended to celebrate a victory dancing.
That same year, Matthew Norman of The Telegraph made a vile comment about Williams’ breast size; three years later, in a Fox Sports column, Jason Whitlock described William’s physique as “thick, muscular fat”.
Other tennis players also got in on the act. In 2012, Caroline Wozniacki imitated Williams at an exhibition by stuffing a towel into her shirt and skirt.
Williams, for her part, said she didn’t find Wozniacki’s joke racist — as some had said — but she thought Wozniacki would come across as “differently” next time around.
Some of this body criticism took the form of questioning Williams’ gender. In 2014, Shamil Tarpischev, then president of the Russian Tennis Federation, was suspended for a year and fined $25,000 for calling the Williams sisters “brothers”.
These comments were not limited to tennis officials and members of the media. After Williams won Wimbledon in 2012, a writer posted dozens of tweets calling Williams a “man” or a “gorilla.”
After a controversial 2018 US Open final, in which Williams received three code violations and lost a match, Australian newspaper The Herald Sun published a cartoon that depicted Williams as an angry baby stomping the ground. The cartoon drew criticism for what some thought were racist depictions – the size of Williams’ nose and lips were exaggerated while Naomi Osaka – who is also black – was depicted as a white woman.
In a 2018 interview, Williams addressed critical comments about her looks, saying that while the critics took their toll, she learned to love her body.
“It was tough for me,” Williams told Harpers Bazaar. “People would say I was born a man, all because of my arms, or because I’m strong. I was different from Venus: she was thin and tall and beautiful, and I’m strong and muscular – and handsome, but, you know, it was just totally different.”
Williams also said she faced “discrimination” in drug testing because she was tested far more frequently than her competitors.
In a tweet 2018she called the frequent testing “#BeingSerena.”
Catsuits and coded language
In her book, “On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination,” author and New York University professor Nicole Fleetwood describes Williams’ style as a perceived form of racial excess, “specifically the black woman’s body as excess”.
While tennis attire has traditionally been “restrained and delicate, color-coordinated and flirtatious, but not overtly sexual”, any change Williams makes to those expectations – from beads and braids to denim mini skirts on the court, in going through the “booty shorts” – was treated as a scandal in the sports media.
“With Serena’s body type, every outfit she wore became a conversation piece,” Lori Latrice Martin, a professor of African American studies at Louisiana State University, told Insider.
In 2018, Williams wore a black jumpsuit to the French Open, saying she felt like a “warrior princess…queen of Wakanda”, referencing the “Black Panther” universe. The following year, however, the catsuit was banned.
“I think we sometimes went too far,” French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli told Tennis Magazine. “The [outfit] from Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”
Many critics saw the ban as one rooted in racism, and many fans pointed out that a white tennis player had been allowed to wear a suit in the past.
The language sometimes used to describe Williams’ body is also often encoded in common racial stereotypes, where black women are portrayed as more powerful or masculine than their white peers.
In a 2013 profile for Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick compared Williams to his competitor, Maria Sharapova: “Sharapova is tall, white and blonde, and because of that earns more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black , beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crush Volkswagens in the sports arenas.”
“In the case of gender,” Martin said, “we center white women and attribute all of these positive attributes to white women and the negative qualities to black women.”
A critical lens
Williams, perhaps more so than her peers, also faced harsher investigations and criticism for her behavior on and off the pitch.
In 2001, tennis fans accused Serena, Venus and their father and manager, Richard, of match fixing after Venus dropped out of a semi-final against Serena in Indian Wells moments before the match started.
The WTA said it found no evidence of match-fixing – and Williams’ sisters denied the allegations – but that didn’t stop the Indian Wells crowd from treating the family with hostility. In the now infamous incident, Richard and Venus walked into the arena for Serena’s match and were greeted with hoarse boos and racial jeers. Richard said a fan called it the N-word.
The treatment caused the Williams sisters to sit out the tournament until 2015.
Upon her return to the tournament, Serena wrote for Time that the match-fixing allegations “have torn us to the core”, adding that “the undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair”.
In the mid-2000s, Williams played fewer games while expanding her stardom, dipping her toes into fashion and acting. These off-court pursuits led to many comments that Williams didn’t care enough about tennis. Notably, tennis analyst and 18-time Grand Slam Chris Evert questioned Williams’ desire in a letter to Tennis Magazine, writing, “whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy.”
Reactions to the letter were split among tennis fans, between those who agreed with Evert and those who thought she had little to say about what Williams did with her time off the court. ground. Some wondered if the off-pitch interests of other players would have drawn the same scrutiny.
In 2006, Williams brushed off the letter while speaking to reporters.
“I haven’t read any of that,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors and what people are really going through… I don’t dwell on other people. I know what I have to do. You have to be happy with what you’re doing.”
A reflection of society
The media’s treatment of Williams is similar to how black women are treated in other sports and other industries.
“Whatever you see in society, it will show in sports,” Martin told Insider.
Through all the challenges she faced, Williams will be remembered for changing the sport of tennis forever.
Many black female athletes have followed in her and her sister’s footsteps, from Naomi Osaka to Sloane Stephens. According to an analysis by Sports Marketing Surveys, the participation of black female tennis players increased by 44% between 2019 and 2021, and a record number of black women participated in the US Open in 2020.
“Her legacy is more than just being Serena. I started acting because of her,” Naomi Osaka told HBO’s “The Shop.” “I’m sure there are so many other girls who started playing because of her, so she literally built champions.”