Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why Venus and Serena get so much flak from the tennis world

Read this in The Telegraph today. Decided to put it up because a) I think the author has a point, and b) I was appalled by what Martina Hingis has said about the Williams sisters as well as Amelie Mauresmo!!

- Why Venus and Serena get so much flak from the tennis world
Mukul Kesavan

When Elena Dementieva, having lost to Venus Williams in the semi-finals of this year’s Wimbledon, suggested that the finals between the two sisters would be fixed before the event in a family conclave, she was doing what the tennis world has been doing for a decade now: trashing the Williams sisters. When reporters ran Dementieva’s comment past Venus, she said she found the comment insulting to her commitment as a tennis player; when the moderator tried to find an alibi for the Russian girl’s insinuation, Venus cut the question short. She had been listening to rubbish like this for years now, and she had had enough.

As someone who thinks Serena and Venus have transformed women’s tennis for the better in the past ten years, I’ve often wondered why they get so much flak from their peers, ex-players, the press, and yes, even spectators. Given that they’re the most exciting players to watch since Martina Navratilova in her prime, why is the tennis world so reluctant to give them their due? Roy Johnson, a sports journalist for Yahoo Sports, summed it up neatly: “... the sport of tennis — from its governing bodies to the establishment elite, to sponsors and fans in the cheap seats — has been, let’s face it, ambivalent about them.”

Ambivalent is a nice way of putting it: snide, patronizing, resentful and jealous would better describe the hostility they’ve encountered. The trash-talking began early. It took a curious form: their peers suggested that they were taking advantage of the fact that they were black, that their being black was in itself an unfair advantage.

This must have come as news to the sisters who grew up black and poor in Crompton, one of the roughest parts of Los Angeles, playing on public courts that boasted amenities such as drive-by shootings and used hypodermic syringes. Richard Williams once thanked Vijay Amritraj on television for arranging practice facilities for his girls when the public courts became too dangerous to play on. Martina Hingis couldn’t have seen that programme because in a 2001 interview she declared:

“Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism’. They can always come back and say ‘Because we are this colour, things happen.’” When asked about this, Serena said that journalists could look at the transcripts of all the interviews she had done in her career to judge the truth of the allegation. She had never once brought colour into the equation. About the sponsors: she said, as she was entitled to, that she got endorsements because she worked hard and won matches.

Hingis can be dismissed as a serial offender: she once put Amelie Mauresmo’s success in the women’s game down to the fact that “she was half a man”. But it’s harder to explain away Navratilova’s willingness to go after the Williams family. In an interview with Time magazine in 2001, Navratilova criticized Venus’s father, Richard, for doing a jig, courtside, after his daughter beat Lindsay Davenport. As a great player with nine Wimbledon singles titles, Navratilova’s views on court decorum might have been taken seriously if she hadn’t dragged race into the conversation: “If Mr Williams had been white and done that victory dance in front of Lindsay Davenport, he would have been reprimanded much more. People have been afraid to criticize them because they don’t want to be called racist.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was Navratilova who had Richard Williams’s skin colour on the brain. Notice how Navratilova moves from her specific criticism of the father’s behaviour to the general allegation that legitimate criticism of the Williams sisters had been inhibited by a fear of political correctness. The trouble with this generalization is that it isn’t true. Serena and Venus have been at the receiving end of more critical comment than any other player of similar standing. In an essay in The New York Times in 2003, Sara Corbett spoke of the “relentless criticism” the sisters have faced. John McEnroe, declared that Venus and Serena were “as cold as ice”. Davenport and Monica Seles complained that Venus didn’t say ‘hi’ to anyone. Navratilova accused them of being “...afraid to show any kind of humility.”

In 2006, both Navratilova and Chris Evert took it upon themselves to chide Serena for a lack of commitment to tennis. Venus and Serena both play an average of roughly ten tournaments a year, well below the tour norm of fifteen, even twenty tournaments. Evert went to the extent of writing Serena an open letter in Tennis Magazine. Referring to Serena’s much-publicized interest in couture and cinema, Evert wrote: “I don’t see how acting and designing clothes can be compared with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world.” Navratilova echoed Evert’s reproach. Apart from the daftness of legislating other people’s preferences, the odd thing about this gratuitous advice was that neither Evert nor Navratilova had been particularly supportive or appreciative of Serena and Venus earlier in their careers, which made their intervention seem like carping rather than well-meant concern.

Even if the advice was well-meant, it was misplaced. Venus and Serena’s strategy of playing fewer tournaments has allowed them to outlast many of their more ‘committed’ contemporaries. Anna Kournikova, Justin Henin, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters have all retired from the game, burnt out by injuries and their monomanical commitment to competitive tennis. Pam Shriver, Navratilova’s doubles partner and once Venus’s mentor on the tour, has come to believe that the Williams sisters might have pioneered a new and better way of handling a tennis career. “There’s something to pacing. You have to be willing to face criticism from the tour and the establishment to play 12 to 16 tournaments a year.”

Shriver’s comment is a clue to the animosity that the Williamses face. Here’s Richard Williams, a man who declares when his daughters are thirteen and twelve that they’ll grow up to be the two best players in the world. But unlike the usual obsessive tennis parent, he doesn’t allow them to play the junior circuit because it might interfere with their education. He teaches them the importance of a life outside tennis and tells the world that he expects his daughter’s to walk away from the game they’ve dominated to pursue other interests.

And Venus and Serena go on to bear out his beliefs. They do everything he predicted. They win fifteen majors between them without obsessing about being No 1. And they win the big tournaments on their own terms. Serena, for example, after two years of injuries left her out of shape and adrift at a rank of 95 at the end of 2006, won the Australian Open by thrashing tennis’s favourite golden girl, Maria Sharapova, 6-1 6-2 in the final. Along the way, Venus sets up an interior design company, V. Starr Interiors, while Serena creates a new apparel line, Aneres.

Over the past five years, we’ve heard that the Belgians were coming, then it was the Russians who were coming, and now it’s the Serbs who are coming. Someone forgot to tell the Williams sisters. Because the Belgians have come (and gone), the Russian girls seem to have lost the plot and the Serbs didn’t last till the business end of Wimbledon, so Venus and Serena, after being exiled from the show courts in the earlier rounds, found themselves playing each other again, on Centre Court.

That’s why Hingis, Davenport, Navratilova, Seles, Evert, McEnroe & Co. don’t like the Williams. That two girls and their dad could take the women’s game by the scruff and shake it into new life and take it to another level without treating tennis as a sacred vocation, galls them. It diminishes their lives, it makes their immersion in tennis seem one-dimensional and obsessive. In March this year, Richard Williams criticized McEnroe for playing tennis for twenty years and then commentating on it for the next twenty. It was as if he had learnt nothing else in the course of his life, said Williams. Given that McEnroe has said plenty about Venus and Serena in the past, he can scarcely argue that Richard should mind his own business. That a black man who doesn’t know his place should say this, a black man with two champion daughters who have brought his prescriptions to life, must be intolerable. But after this all-Williams Wimbledon final, it’s time for their critics to learn the two Commandments that the family’s been trying to teach for a decade now.

Tennis is only a game. And the Williamses own it.

1 comment:

Spike said...

thanks for posting this wonderful article.... it does have a point