By Jack Halberstam
In the 1980’s I remember watching John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and other bad boys of tennis throw their racquets around, yell at referees, jump up and down in anger on the court and generally vent like spoiled schoolboys about a missed shot or a lost point. McEnroe’s favorite cry of disappointment – “You cannot be serious!” – even became a popular catchphrase. People thought of this behavior as “passion,” as evidence that white male American players in particular were invested in the game, and on-court outbursts stood as proof of a kind of emotionality that made the player “human” as opposed to the robotic coldness of a Scandinavian player like Bjorn Borg or the explosiveness of an Eastern European player like Ilie Nastase. Last night when Serena Williams was called for a foot fault at 5-6 and 15-30 in the second set, when she was already down a set, she turned to the line judge and directed a few choice words of disbelief her way. Later Serena Williams commented at a press conference that she had almost never been called for a foot fault in her whole career, let alone at such a crucial point in a match at the US Open. After Serena’s outburst, the line judge, an Asian American woman, approached the chair umpire and complained that she felt threatened by Serena! The big wigs were called onto the court and Serena was given a point penalty that, at match point, gave Kim Clijsters the match. This was a terrible call, a terrible moment for women’s tennis and more evidence of a double standard in sports around male and female behavior and in relation to what is perceived as racially specific conduct.
As Tavia Nyong’o commented in his superb blog on Caster Semenya: “World-class female athletes have long made people anxious, particularly gorgeously muscle-bound black ones.” What was true for Semenya might be true for Williams – the public and the media has no neutral language with which to describe and explain the extraordinary performances of Black female athletes. Black female athletic performances that are, literally, beyond the pale have tended to solicit suspicion and disdain while white female athleticism, especially when it is packaged in a Playboy ready form, receives acclaim and respect. It is no secret that the Williams sisters in tennis have had a love-hate relationship with the media and the public, nor that Serena in particular has been berated for her “masculine” physique. In fact, in February 2009, The Huffington Post ran an interesting op-ed on the omission of the Williams sisters from the 2009 Australian Open’s “list of the 10 most Beautiful Women” in the tournament. The list was topped by Jelena Jankovic and included more than one blond Russian. The absence of Venus and Serena from this list spoke volumes about the misplaced emphasis in women’s sports, and women’s tennis in particular, on appearance over performance but it also implicitly referenced the lurking charge of “lesbianism” or “gender transgression” that hangs over many a performance of female athletic excellence. The recent case of Caster Semenya is just the latest in the long history of gender confusion in relation to women’s sports and Serena Williams’ outburst illuminates the treacherous path walked by female athletes who compete at the highest level, blow away the competition and refuse to or simply cannot conform to normative standards of female beauty.
Again, as Tavia noted in his analysis of the freak show attitudes provoked by Semenya’s extraordinary athleticism, virtuosity is both compelling and confusing to people. Many, many athletes who win at the highest level of competition also have some unique physical attribute, what NYT sports writer Maurice Chittenden calls a “freakish advantage” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article555183.ece). In an article from 2005 on top athletes and their physical oddities, he notes that Michael Phelps, the US swimming champion, has outsized feet that work like flippers; the same was true of Ian Thorpe. David Beckham has “bandy legs” that help him to put curves into his kicks; Lance Armstrong has very low lactic acid levels so his legs can keep going and going. And so on. Sports champions are often, literally, freaks of nature, so why we would stumble over the spectacle of a woman with a six pack but not a man with size 17 feet? Obviously, the boundaries for female athletic virtuosity must not leave the domain of acceptable femininity where femininity is too often defined in opposition to athleticism, activity and aggression.
So while the female body draws negative attention for athleticism that tips into muscular masculinity, behavior and conduct for female athletes is also judged according to a different set of rules. When Serena Williams cited John McEnroe and his antics as an influence for her own on court passions, McEnroe quickly distanced himself from her and suggested that she had crossed lines he would never have even approached. In fact, almost any kind of showy behavior by athletes of color draws negative attention while almost any kind of bad behavior from white athletes is thought of as “spirited.” When Justine Henin showed terrible sportsmanship at the French Open in 2003 by not backing up Serena Williams’ complaint about an obvious missed call, the French crowd began to boo Williams instead of Henin and Williams became so unnerved that she went on to lose the final set after having led 4-2. The headlines after Serena’s defeat and the hideous display of group racism within the crowd, crowed about the end of Serena Williams’ unbeaten run. When a Williams sister wins easily, it is called “boring”; when she fights hard, she is labeled erratic; when Venus or Serena question a call, they are charged with petulance but when they are don’t, they are pegged as indifferent to the sport.
Tennis has often been cast as the sport of ladies and gentlemen. It is implicitly a class bound activity that favors the kids who grew up with tennis courts in the backyard and expensive coaches. Much has indeed been made of the humble beginnings of the Williams sisters who spent the first years of their life in Compton, LA before moving to Florida and training with other teen tennis stars. Implicit in all of the coverage of the Williams’ family—including their mother Oracen and their father Richard—is that somehow, the Williams just don’t behave properly in the dignified world of tennis. When Venus won Wimbledon in 2000, her father danced in the stands shouting: “Straight out of Compton!” When Venus started a clothing line, it was seen as a distraction from tennis; in general, Venus and Serena’s outfits on court have been seen as unbecoming to the game and they are both characterized as excessive, too much, more spectacle than tennis.
Just to put the focus on Serena Williams’ behavior in perspective, imagine a discussion about Roger Federer’s effeminacy in relation to his designer sports wear or his tendency to cry when he loses. Imagine a real interrogation into the fist-pumping behavior of all kinds of white American tennis players who leave their sportsmanship in the locker room and resort to “mission accomplished” tactics while crushing opponents who have often learned to play tennis in far less rarefied and privileged circumstances. In fact, the most recent fist-pumping, great white hope for US women’s tennis, Melanie Oudin, a nineteen year-old blond pony tailer, has been discussed as a “Cinderella” figure, as someone who will single-handedly rescue US women’s tennis! This Cinderella story consigns Venus and Serena to the role of the “ugly sisters” and promises a new queen, a palatable tennis princess and a return to tennis whites.