The Serena Williams Controversy and the Elephant in the Room…Race

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The Serena Williams Controversy and the Elephant in the Room…Race
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of Serena Williams' unceremonious exit from the US Open in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, the major media including CBS and ESPN have stayed away from the issue of race. 

However, based on many of the comments being posted on various websites regarding Serena’s reaction to a questionable foot fault call when the outcome of the match was still in doubt, I would say race is very much an underlying issue in analyzing the media reaction to the unfortunate ending that occurred.

For those who say it is too easy to inject race into the topic…well…it is also just as easy to avoid the topic especially when it does not involve something obvious such as the use of a slur. 

Thus, the Grand Slam committee and International Tennis Federation should not be narrow-minded when they review the matter to determine what penalties Serena will have to suffer for her actions last night.

First, the rise of Serena and Venus to professional stardom was not the result of fancy, expensive tennis academy instruction that many tennis players in the United States have enjoyed. Instead, their game was developed on the public courts in Compton, California with their father Richard as their instructor. 

This fact in itself has ruffled the feathers of the tennis establishment to the point that they have been critical of Richard Williams rationalizing in some twisted way that he somehow impeded the tennis development of his daughters. 

The reality is that private tennis academies are big business and it could not have made the tennis establishment happy that two middle-class African-American girls from Compton could win a combined 18 major singles titles without spending an exorbitant amount of money on private instruction in some fancy South Florida location.

During the 1997 US Open semifinals, Romanian Irin Spirlea intentionally bumped Venus Williams during a changeover. There was no outrage from the media regarding Spirlea’s behavior nor was she warned or given a point penalty for her misconduct. 

Was Spirlea’s action motivated by race? Richard Williams felt so and called Spirlea “a big, ugly, tall, white turkey”. 

During a tournament in 2001 in Indian Wells, California, Serena was the target of booing and jeering by almost the entire (and largely American) crowd during the finals against ironically Kim Clijsters.

During the 2004 US Open quarterfinals, Serena was the victim of many bad calls during the final set against Jennifer Capriati…calls which were confirmed to be wrong by television replay. Serena maintained her composure despite being severely handicapped by the poor calls and eventually losing the match as a result. 

It was the poor officiating in that match which led to the implementation of replay in tennis for line calls on the balls.

Basically, Serena lost her composure yesterday and cannot be excused for that. I think she knows she embarrassed herself and was wrong for everything she said to the lines person. She should have spoken to the umpire of the match and expressed her concern about the call. 

Nobody will argue with that fact including her own mother. However, in the heat of the moment she probably felt the same way last night as she did against Capriati. She was very much in the match down 5-6 in the second set and 15-30 in her service game. 

The match was not over as being implied by many in the media who minimized the impact of the highly questionable foot fault call by the lines person. At that point, it became 15-40 and double match point so Serena had good reason to be upset if the foot fault call was indeed wrong. 

Such a call should only be made if it was obvious in light of the fact that it cannot be reviewed by television replay though that will probably change after last night. 

All of CBS commentators were critical of Serena including Dick Enberg who said “That's not what champions do” in reference to Serena. Yet, many champions have engaged in poor sportsmanship on multiple occasions including celebrated Americans like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. 

Another observation is that the US Open crowd at Arthur Ashe stadium was cheering for the Belgian Clijsters over one of the greatest female players ever and an American in Serena. 

She has won 11 major titles including winning four consecutive which was dubbed the Serena Slam. Did the US Open crowd ever cheer against Billie Jean King and Chris Evert?  In fact, the US Open crowd cheered for Clijsters over Venus in the fourth round. Venus is also one of the greatest American female players having won seven major titles herself.

The feel good story of Clijsters coming back after motherhood does not explain cheering for her over two of the greatest female tennis players ever who happen to be American.  The same US Open crowd was cheering on Melanie Oudin against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and would have cheered on Oudin if she had played Clijsters. 

So, I do not buy the feel good story explanation as to why a largely American audience would cheer against their own champions who happen to be African-American when they have not done so in the case of white players like Evert, King, McEnroe, Connors, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. 

Is this because Serena and Venus do not embody the All-American girl stereotype of being blond and white? There apparently was at least one sports talk show host in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area who said that Melanie Oudin was the only American left in the US Open when in fact Serena was still playing.

The lines person should never have been the story last night. It was also disappointing to see that the lines person who made the controversial foot fault call did not seem upset about the fact that she had become the story and that a great match ended the way it did. 

In fact, it was almost as though she enjoyed seeing the point penalty assessed against Serena which thus ended the match. 

The lines person in question is an Asian-American.  Relations between Asian-Americans and African-Americans have historically been tense in the Los Angeles area where Serena is from. 

This tension became a national story in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.  It is quite possible that Serena’s verbal statements to the line person were at least in part a result of an attitude she may have developed as a result of her childhood exposure to that tension. 

Furthermore, one must not simply allow the lines person to get away as a completely innocent person. The foot fault call itself must be replayed at the best angle available to determine if the call was correct and if it was not was the error egregious? 

Also, I would want to know what personal feelings the lines person has regarding race and whether that played any role in her foot fault call. I seriously doubt you will see her working another US Open because neither the USTA nor television can afford to have the US Open be marred the way it was. 

The sport is about the players…not the lines person. Just imagine if the incident had occurred earlier in the match.

Finally, for those in the US Open audience who were cheering against the Williams’ sisters, you got your wish of a final without either present. I doubt that the USTA and its sponsors will be thrilled with the television ratings of the all-European final because Clijsters-Wozniacki does not quite carry the same appeal as Federer-Nadal.

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