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'It's time we let Serena Williams just be Serena Williams, imperfect and complex as she may be'

Why are we so quick to vilify certain athletes over others?

 ‘YOU’RE A THIEF, too.’

It was with that sentence that all hell broke loose in Arthur Ashe Stadium last Saturday night. Once Serena Williams uttered it, it was all over. Umpire Carlos Ramos issued a violation for verbal abuse and imposed a game penalty. She pleaded with tournament officials. She sought to defend her character. She invoked her baby daughter. She cried. She lost.

During the prizegiving ceremony, boos rang out through the stadium as the crowd expressed their anger at what they perceived as a great injustice. Champion Naomi Osaka wept before Serena Williams eventually intervened and instructed the crowd to allow her opponent to enjoy her moment. It was utterly surreal.

And it didn’t end there.

For the last six days, we have been treated to a ceaseless debate about the drama that unfolded on court. Was the umpire too harsh? Did Serena have it coming? Would it have happened in a men’s final? Were sexism and racism at play? And what about Naomi Osaka?

Some of the debate has been measured and even-handed, but a lot of it has been ugly and hyperbolic. From that horribly racist caricature printed in an Australian newspaper to America Ferrera’s presumably well-meaning, but ultimately misguided suggestion that a male tennis player step up and pay Serena’s fine, much of the discussion has been devoid of nuance.

My take is this: both Serena Williams and the umpire carry some of the blame. Both had opportunities to defuse the situation, but persisted. Emotions were running high, mistakes were made, and tempers flared.

Were double standards at play? I would say yes because I don’t believe an umpire would have doled out such a strict penalty in a men’s final without first issuing a soft warning. Does that mean Serena Williams can be absolved for her actions? Not entirely. Should the outburst tarnish her legacy? Hell no.

Yet the way some commentators are acting, you would swear it was a complete anomaly and not part and parcel of sport. Watch any competitive sport and you will see athletes clashing with referees. You will see emotions running high. You will see tempers flaring. It’s not always pretty, but rarely does it inspire the same volume of debate as when Serena Williams does it.

That’s because Serena Williams can’t sneeze without a think piece being written. Her actions both on and off the court invite a level of judgement and scrutiny that’s unparalleled.

Think about it. If she dares wear a catsuit, she inspires a debate about whether it’s appropriate tennis court attire. If she poses in a swimsuit on the cover of Sports Illustrated, she’s accused of betraying the sisterhood and sabotaging equality. Hell, if she wears a leotard, she is said to be “looking like she wants one thing”.

Over the last year, Serena Williams has found herself at the centre of countless media storms and controversies, many out of her control. Take, for instance, the time John McEnroe suggested that she would rank around #700 on the men’s tour, a tired and dismissive argument used to denigrate female athletes. Or when tennis veteran Ilie Nastase made a racist remark about the race of her unborn child. Or when she was forced to respond to disparaging tweets from controversial tennis player Tennys Sandgren. The list goes on.

So what is it about Serena Williams that provokes such ire? Why are the reactions to her so outsized? Why the constant need to take her down a peg and tell her off? Could it be that people are unaccustomed to seeing a black woman carry herself with the confidence of a white man and feel threatened by her?

Serena Williams is the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. She has dominated the game for the better part of twenty years and helped shape how women’s tennis is played today. She has overcome tremendous adversity and broken barriers yet she still fails to command the same level of respect as many of her male peers. She has endured untold racism and sexism, and still refused to back down from the game she loves – even when it’s been made clear that it doesn’t always love her back.

Which is why it’s perplexing that people are so ready to pounce on her the second she is anything other than polite and gracious. Yes, Serena is intense. Yes, she is competitive. Yes, she is passionate. Yes, she is messy. Yes, she is a relentless competitor. Yes, she can even act a tad entitled sometimes. But these are traits we expect and prize in male athletes, particularly those who are at the pinnacle of their sport.

This is not to entirely excuse Serena’s behaviour last weekend. Nobody is beyond reproach, after all. But it’s important to query why we are so quick to vilify certain athletes over others and examine our own unconscious biases.

If a white male tennis player called an umpire a ‘thief,’ would we be as gravely offended? If a white male tennis player posed shirtless in a magazine, would we accuse him of being a traitor to his gender? If a white male tennis player was unquestionably the best in the world, would we be constantly looking for excuses as to why that may be the case? (‘He’s much more muscular than everyone else…’) 

No? Well then perhaps it’s time we look at how we analyse Serena Williams and stop turning everything she does into a debate. It’s time we let Serena be Serena, imperfect and complex as she may be. 

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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