In the most iconic mistake of recent years, Serena Williams has announced her first pregnancy, and marked the start of what should be a joyful time in her life. However, like with pretty much everything else she does, there’s been a backlash. Whether it’s Romanian coach Ilie Nastase’s blatant racism – he asked what colour Williams’ child would be as her boyfriend is white – or think pieces questioning her will to return after giving birth, there’s always something to criticise her for.
“She will realize, when she gives birth, that being a mum will be a better feeling than all her grand slam wins put together and she will enjoy the family life.” Comments such as this, quoted in a CNN article from top coach Wim Fissette, would never be said about male tennis players. Roger Federer is a father of four, and no one doubted whether Andy Murray would return after the birth of his first child. Williams is no different – that article even admitted that after the inevitable recovery time post-partum, there’s no reason why she physically can’t return to top form. Yet somehow her determination will be lessened due to the birth of her child in a way that doesn’t happen for her male counterparts. A career and a newborn are apparently too difficult for this Amazonian champion. Women truly can’t have it all.
This is nothing new for Williams. Throughout her career she has been the subject of racist and misogynistic abuse, for instance, the constant scrutiny of her physique. A paradigm of the 24/7 athlete, her body doesn’t fit in with conventional beauty standards that require women to be slim, delicate, and to take up less space. It’s a powerful and unrepentant black body that has been mocked and insulted in an attempt to reduce Williams back to her perceived place.
In addition, indiscretions and mistakes that would be swiftly forgiven if originating from white men (and to a lesser extent, white women), are held up as excuses for this hatred. People are quick to point to the few occasions when she has sworn at umpires in her 21 year long professional career, ignoring the fact that outbursts from male players are dismissed as “heat of the moment” mistakes. Serena Williams is simply held to a higher standard to the majority of her competitors, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Serena is a fearless black woman who pays no heed to restrictive beauty standards and represents for some the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman. And to rub salt in racists’ wounds, she is unparalleled in her field. In fact not just her field – she is undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes of all time regardless of gender or sport. Who else can claim to be so dominant for so long, or to be so successful, so unstoppable? Simply listing her achievements would fill my word limit twice over. The current world number one has been in that position seven times, the first way back in 2002, and has won 39 major titles. Her 23 singles Grand Slam titles is a record in the Open Era and she is the only player ever – male or female – to have won at least 6 times in 3 of the 4 Grand Slam tournaments. I could go on but you get the picture. This is mind-boggling success.
And it’s not like this is just due to sub-par opposition. Williams has faced serious competition from the likes of Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, and Venus Williams. She’s even faced off with drug cheat Maria Sharapova and come out on top. Yet her achievements are belittled time and time again, with people inventing reasons to attack her.
Take the Venus-Serena conspiracy theory. There are those who believe that the two sisters throw matches when they play each other, and it’s impossible to detach this speculation from racism. At the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, Venus picked up an injury and resigned before her match with Serena, leading to angry fans allegedly racially abusing their father in the stand. Neither sister played the tournament for 14 years afterwards in protest against their treatment. As visible and prominent women of colour, the Williams sisters have become lightning rods for misogynoir abuse.
If anyone is overdue recognition for their sporting achievements, it’s Serena Williams. At the very least, let’s just leave her the fuck alone and watch her continue to be what she’s been for the last 20 odd years – a sporting legend.
[Louise Wylie @womanpendulum]