Current Affairs

Match Points?

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.

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.


TENNIS-OPEN/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” (  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.

16 replies on “Match Points?”

While you make some very good points about the treatment of the Williams sisters by the media here, I do not think it is fair to compare the treatment of John McEnroe meltdowns from 20-25 years ago as evidence a double standard.

Tennis players and matches are more of corporatized products today than ever, and — as with many sports — this process has included major sanitizing of the sport. Tennis is not alone; behavior that used to be acceptable or officially ignored in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, auto racing, cycling, and countless other sports in the 1980s is now subject to stiff sanctions, both in-game and post-match. It is those new standards by which organized Tennis’ reaction to Serena’s actions must be judged.

Serena smashed her racket when she lost the first set — that’s an automatic sportsmanship warning for ANY player.

At a crucial moment in the second set she got called for a foot fault. McEnroe — commentating on the match — was quick to say that they shouldn’t have called that at such an important time. BS. A fault is a fault whether it’s the first serve of a blowout match or the last. If we want line judges to call the match fairly, we must expect them to call a fault automatically when they see it. They should not have to pause to consider whether this point in the match is too crucial to call the fault.

As soon as that happened, Serena went to the line judge and told her she was lucky Serena didn’t “shove this f—ing ball down your f—ing throat.” And that would have been the end of it, but then, after returning to the baseline to serve, Serena came back (this time with the chair umpire watching) and said something else.

Since the chair umpire saw the second exchange, she called the line judge over and asked what was said. The line judge had apparently intended to let it go otherwise. But once the chair umpire knew what was said, the CURRENT rules of sportsmanship in pro tennis had a clear statement of what was expected next. A one-point penalty was assessed. Fairly minor in the grand scheme of possible penalties.

It was unfortunate that the one point happened to be match point, but it did. Because of the gravity of the point, the officials took their time to make sure they enforced the rules fairly and correctly. Had it been a nothing point in a blowout match, I’m sure the chair umpire would have simply assessed it immediately, without debate or controversy.

Point is, the comparison to tennis of a quarter century ago is fallacious. If they weren’t we, we should ignore the use of steroids or speed in football and cycling; welcome the intentional 90 mph pitch to the head as “part of the game” in baseball; and celebrate excellence in hockey by how few teeth are visible.

Male or female, black or white, the rules for pro sports are not the same as they were in 1986.

I get your point about shifts in the game and in the management of player conduct but I still think there is a real gender division at play here and a racialization of Serena’s anger. Leyton Hewitt, a white Australian, became incensed in 2001 over 2 foot fault calls when he was playing African American James Blake. Hewitt charged the line judge with reverse racism because he was also Black. Hewitt was not fined because the evidence of racism was “inconclusive.” Women’s tennis makes thousands of dollars from the performances of both Venus and Serena Williams and to end a match in this way, after a very bad foot fault call, cheats Williams, Clijsters and the whole enterprise of women’s tennis. Foot fault calls are hardly objective and they are not subject to review. There is a degree of discretion that is expected in the timing of when they are called and this call took the game out of the hands of Serena. She was right to be incensed, perhaps wrong to express her anger in the way she did.

I’m not sure how it was a bad call. Because of timing or because she didn’t step on the line? If because of timing, a call is a call — and should be the same regardless of the game situation. In fact, a line judge should be focused on judging calls at the line and unconcerned with the progression of the match.

I’m not disputing whether professional tennis has an underlying racism or sexism. I’m just saying that John McEnroe’s meltdowns 20-30 years ago does not represent a reasonable comparison to evidence such racism or sexism.

i think yelling ‘i’m going to shove this fucking ball down your throat’ is a liiiiiiiiiittle more threatening than ‘you can’t be serious.’ but hey, what do i know, i’m a passionate white boy 😉

Also, how are we forgetting that Serena just played a bad game? She said as much herself in the post-game interview (which, by the way, she handled mightily as journalists tried to put words in her mouth). I think to some degree her outburst against the line judge was fueled by her frustration with her own performance. Also, let’s not rob Clijsters: she’d been off the pro-circuit for over two years and was playing at a very high level at the U.S. Open.

In addition, just to throw this in there, a witty but politically incorrect friend of mine quipped, “I don’t own a liquor store!,” ventriloquizing from the point-of-view of the line judge who he assumed is Korean American. Any info on the line judge out there? He was referencing of course what the Korean community calls “Sa-I-Gu” or the 1992 L.A. riots where Korean American businesses seemed to be disproportionately vandalized. So, in other words, is this about minority on minority ressentiment? Can we throw a “halo” around Serena’s head based only on her impoverished childhood? Just some thoughts.

By the way, I just loved, loved, loved your blog on Bruno, Jack! It was very spot on!

The commentators during the broadcast said it was a bad call – after they replayed the serve.

The point for abuse of an official is standard. What is not standard is being accused of threatening to kill the official. That’s the spot where you see things really go awry – that, and media punditry which paints Williams as some sort of monster – when contrasted with male players famous for their tempers, she is in fact a remarkably restrained player. It’s actually completely amazing how much we’ve had to say about this incident when you look at guys like McEnroe or Connors, or any range of players who’ve thrown their rackets and even stormed off the court.

Williams is relatively calm once she learns she’d been docked the point and has thrown the match – and is very reasonable when she explains she did not say to the line judge that she was going to “kill her.”

And what isn’t normal, either, is the intensity of the relentless scrutiny of her affect.

I totally recommend checking out the last entry on After Atlanta – – there’s a great thing in there about how people talk about female tennis players’ smiles. Makes me want to throw a racket, or something heavier – like a frying pan.

You’ve nailed it, Jack, and I’ve become a fan on the strength of this welcome piece of clarity – the analysis and the writing both. I was the first woman black belt and first professional martial arts institute owner/instructor in the country overseas where I lived for many years. Earlier, when I was still working towards my black belt in Oakland, CA (the only woman in the gym), I had my bones broken on purpose more than once by my white male student “colleagues” – who found my progress infuriating. A woman fighter in the early1970s? Not done. The black men in our gym saved me, got my back, stood with me.
The tennis circuit should be thanking the gracious, patient Williams sisters everyday for bringing so many fans back, despite their consistently shoddy treatment by the tennis establishment. Thanks for this important piece. I’m going to link to it on my Facebook page.

(LQTM.) I think what’s interesting here is the only “affect” most people seem to care about is Serena Williams’s. What about the line judge’s affect? Working with a fellow A.B.D. working on Asian Americans and “anger,” I think that I am more interested in the very messy nexus of affects between the two (the line judge & Serena Williams) and less so in that of the judges officiating overall. That’s the point I was wanting to draw attention to.

Btw, just got to the link you posted Professor Doyle, and it’s a good one, and – YES – quite maddening.

I have to say this blog and the comments have me worked up enough to comment. I intellectually sympathize with Jack. I’ve seen it one too many times myself where female athletes are more harshly punished for unsportsmanlike behavior than a male counterpart. And, chastised for unladylike behavior of the non-Playboy variety. I think Left of Pyle’s point about the way the confrontation went down is a good one. However, claiming the iconic bad behavior of McEnroe isn’t a good example doesn’t hold water for me. His behavior is iconic, he serves a model of great male athleticism.
Yes sport is more corporatized, so much so, that it is essential to get those male pro athletes back on the field after horrendous offenses off the field. Michael Vick anyone? And as for the litany of what we should ignore in male sport, I would suggest it is tolerated for the majority with an occasional slap at the ones who get caught. Not to mention I didn’t see one parallel example in which a contest was handed over to the opponent after a male player cursed out the referee. Nor does your argument address the disparity in the way male outbursts are presented in media as “part of the game.”
I actually think the solution here is to consider the reaction to the incident and the exploration of the incident as more artifacts in the deep archive of the Williams’ sisters and female athleticism. It takes me back to those old Nike ads for girls “If you let me play.” Ads which are now old, but ads women Williams’ age grew up with. The ads promised if we let girls play, really play, they would be amazing, spectacular ladies. Girls ran with the message, be amazing and spectacular. They could take or leave the lady part. Media coverage and sports organizations have to catch up with where women have taken sport.

Just wanted to point out the John McEnroe was defaulted out of the 1990 Australian open for a similar tirade to Serena’s

First and foremost, if the incorrect call had not been made, then Serena wouldn’t have gone berzerk. Let’s address the real issue here. American tennis fans, columnist, commentators etc. have never been for the Williams sisters. Simply because the are black. Let’s revisit how McEnroe and Connors behaved throughout their career. Not enough said or mentioned about it. Let’s research how Fernando Gonzales was penalized the same day for smashing his racket. Was he given a warning or point deduction? Roger Federer cursed the chair umpire out during his final match with Del Potro.

You as well as I know that pros seldom and almost rarely foot fault. In Venus Williams first match of the US Open tournament, she was called for 7 foot faults…..yes, you heard me, seven of them. In a statement, Venus when on to say when asked about the foot faults that she was certainly surprised to be called for so many as she had not foot faulted that many times in all the years she had been pro. In both Serena’s and Venus 2nd match of the tournament, each were called foot faults again. Serena took the initiative to stare down the linesman at that point. She didn’t say a word, only delivered a stare down. Now in the semi final match against Clijsters (incidentally, I am a Clijsters fan as well), down 5-6 in the second set and serving at 15-30, the linesman calls a foot fault???? Come on……you’ve got to be kidding me? Especially when everyone knows that Serena plays her best tennis when her back is up against the wall. She did it at Wimbledon when Dementieva had match point.

Who PAID of the linesman to call foot faults on the Williams sisters at the US Open? This is the question that should be asked. It certainly sounds like a conspiracy to me. Pros rarely foot fault. And why all of a sudden now. That would be like a pro basketball player double dribbling. Let’s face it….the Williams girls are the best female players that the U.S. has to offer. They are world class players. Serena is a competitor, a fighter and she is fierce. She has 11 single grand slam titles to prove it and 10 doubles titles along with Venus that further supports it. Whether or not Clijsters would have won or not on Saturday remains to be unknown. Clijsters played well and the results may have turned out the same. Play the match to the end. However, the bottom line, is plain and simple, the linesman cheated. This has happened over and over to Serena. Remember the 2003 semifinal match against Capriati?? Hence, we have instant replay, shot spot and point challenge as a result of this incident. It wasn’t played over and over in the media. Technology evolved out of it.

When will you all see things for as they are? Serena had every right to shove the ball down the lines woman’s throat….it was down right wrong. The call was not even remotely questionable. It was inconclusive from all camera angles as to whether or not the foot was on the line. So you think the linesman saw that clearly seated 25 feet away? Give me a break. Tennis remains to be discriminatory as like golf.

Whether Serena lost her temper or not, at the end of the day, the tournament is always about the Williams sisters. Tennis can not afford to have them out of the game. They bring in the money and draw the crowds. They ARE the reason why women tennis is now on the map. They transformed tennis from the prissy sport that it was to an athletic competition. It forced the Davenports, Sharapova’s and Serbians to go into the gym and become an athlete. And guess what, the Williams girls learned on the streets of Compton as they were not allowed to play on America’s tennis courts and at the rich Country Clubs.

The whole incident was unfortunate. I support Serena 100% as she was down right cheated. The lines woman didn’t even look like she knew a thing about tennis. She looked like someone had picked her up at Grand Central Station, paid her a $100 and told her to call the foot fault on the 2nd serve. Until American can see things as they truly are, tennis has always been and will continue to be a black and white issue.

So let’s recap the year. Serena wins Australian open singles, and she and Venus captures the double title – chi ching $$$$$. Serena makes it to the semi finals at the French Open. Serena and Venus lose doubles to Petrova and Mattek-Sands in the Semis chi ching $$$$. Serena wins Wimbledon, Venus is runner up and the two of them win doubles – chi ching $$$$$. U.S. Open – favorite is Serena Williams. The Williams girls take the doubles chi ching $$$$. To sum it all up out of 8 possible grand slam WTA titles this year, the Williams sisters walk away with 5 and are the most highly compensated players on tour.

Like Serena, I would like to shove a tennis ball down your F****** throat for being unfair and totally biased. Likewise with Mary Jo Fernandez, John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, Patrick McEnroe et al. The person that ruined the US Open was the person that made the unfair call…..the lines woman. Ask her how much she was paid to make the call – chi ching $$$$$.

Denise Gowdy
Williams Sisters Supporter and avid tennis fan

I am really sick of the excuses given for serena’s behavior. It doesn’t matter what McEnroe, Connors, Nastase, or anyone else did. If this exchange had stopped at the obscenities you could possibly have swallowed hard, picked your jaw up off the floor, and watched serena go on to lose the match. However, approaching someone in a forceful manner while brandishing an object (the racquet) as if it were a weapon goes far beyond cussing somebody out. Those racquets aren’t fragile and let’s not forget it was in just the previous set that serena hit the net post hard enough to mangle a racquet.

I think those who point to the press conference after the match as further example of serena’s insincerity are right. I don’t believe for a nanosecond that she was sorry for what she did – serena was just sorry that, for once, she was going to have to pay the consequences of what she did. While no one is going to be bubbly and happy after a loss serena has always been sullen, surly, and a very poor sport. In all her experience she has never learned graciousness and she has spent far too many years in this sport to not know how to cope with this sort of thing.

On a side note, there is no comparison here to Caster Semenya, either. Caster was born with both male and female genitalia and this was proven by gender determination testing. International competitions like the event in Berlin, the Olympics, etc. are not inter-gender competitions. Women compete against women and men against men. The questions raised about Caster were delicate, uncomfortable, made people squirm, etc. but they spoke to the issue of fairnes to the athletes competing against Caster and, howver much they may have made us blush, they were legitimate questions.

Prof. Halberstam,

Your analysis here is very valuable and greatly appreciated. However, with all due respect, the description of the incident at the US Open itself is a bit misleading. The literal language that Serena chose was indeed threatening. But the account here implies that the lineswoman merely interpreted the outburst in such a way and tattled to the chair umpire based on her felt or imagined threat. In fact, on the contrary, the lineswoman only approached the chair umpire because she was called over.

We should keep in mind that the lineswoman probably gets paid less than $150/day without benefits while Serena earned a base payment of $320,000 for reaching the semifinals of the tournament. I think it’s unfair to downplay Serena’s lapse of judgment in unleashing the outburst by emphasizing the lapse of judgment on behalf of the lineswoman in making the untimely call. I’ve seen Serena exhibit far more grace and restraint after losing a point to an opponent whom had just shamelessly aimed an overhead shot directly at her body while volleying near the net.

I agree that there may have been a “racialization of Serena’s anger” (as you say in the comments section), but I would argue that this manifested in the media and even the spectators’ jeering, not in the actions of the officials present that evening.

While tangential to this particular incident, I must say that when I think about the prejudices that impact the careers of Serena and Venus, one of the prominent examples that comes to my mind is Vogue’s avoidance of commissioning female athletes for the cover of its monthly magazine (except once in 2001). The Williams sisters would seem like logical candidates considering their comprehensive involvement with the fashion world (educational, professional, creative, and personal) as well as the publication’s departure away from using unfamiliar professional runway models (11 of 12 covers in 2010 went to celebrities outside of the fashion industry proper such as comedienne Tina Fey).

Also, Jennifer Doyle’s comment mentions how Serena thought she was being accused of threatening to kill the lineswoman, but it should be noted that Serena addressed this during the press conference and clarified that she had misheard the officials as the lineswoman never actually made that accusation.

Looking forward to more great discussions.

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