There is a saying, "you reap what you sow".
For years tennis has sold the women who compete in this sport in every which way other than as athletes. They have been labelled as sex objects (Kournikova), cute (Tracy Austin), America's darling (Chris Evert), classy (Sharapova), gorgeous (Ivanovic), sexy (Hantuchova). The list goes on and on. All the women above are accomplished in their own right, whether it be singles champions or doubles champions (in the case of Kournikova). All these women were remarkable athletes and competitors. However, the media and tennis fans alike chose to label them a certain way and as athletes next.
When the Williams Sisters came along it was the part of a changing dynamic in women's tennis. No longer was the game played with wooden racquets and 90 mph first serves. There was grunting (Seles), serves hit at 115 mph, ground strokes at warp speed and movement across the court, the likes of which had never been seen before on a tennis court. While Davenport, Capriati and Seles were changing the way how women's tennis was viewed, over in Compton Richard Williams was moulding 2 young women to be champions of the sport. The first to make her debut was Venus. Tall, soft spoken, aloof. The media did not know how to deal with Venus or indeed the Williams family. It got even more difficult for the media when Richard opined that if they think Venus was good, they should see Serena. She was better and meaner than Venus. The media of course salivated (or was it rolled their eyes) at this bit of hubris.
Fast forward almost 20 years and Serena has proven her father correct. She stands on the cusp of the best season of her career. She is one Grand Slam win away from tying the record of the great Steffi Graf, a player who did not overawe the press with her personality and who, like Serena, was dominant during her time at the top.
At a time when the media should be celebrating the awesome career of Serena Williams. At a time when people should be wondering whether they can get tickets to her matches at the US Open, all we are hearing and seeing and reading is talk about an article written by Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times. While there is lots to disagree with in that article, I think Mr. Rothenberg is being made the scapegoat as a result of a larger meme that has permeated how women's tennis and in particular how Serena Williams has been covered.
Scour the internet and you can find thousands of articles from the mainstream media that try to describe Serena. From beast, powerful, savage, brutal, towering, intimidating. These are the words that have been used in the past to describe her game.. In addition to that many in the not so mainstream media use more descriptive words to describe her. From describing her game as animalistic, to describing her opponents as dainty, words have been used to malign the career of this great champion.
There are many who are using this body image article to talk about sexism in tennis, to talk about homophobia, transphobia, racism etc. Lost in all of this is that this has been happening for years. Serena's career has always been overshadowed by narratives that try to put her in her place, rather than lift her up. I, and I am sure many others, are understandably sick and tired of the same narrative about Serena. Right now I am sick and tired of listening to people attempting to defend Serena. You are not helping. Frankly, from where I am sitting, the defenders have now become part of the problem. When something as serious as body image is now the brunt of jokes on late night tv, it has for me lost all relevance and frankly, this was not funny.
As Serena attempts to equal Graf's record, as she attempts to achieve the calendar year Grand Slam, let us not make her career about something as insignificant as her body. Let us make the conversation about Serena be about Serena. Let it be about her tennis. Let it be about how a young girl from Compton, California overcame insurmountable odds and is ruling a sport which was always reserved for those of privilege. Let us not make this possible achievement be about everyone else, but let it be about Serena. She has worked hard and is working hard to achieve a dream. Let us not derail it by making it about anything else.
Frankly, if people want to change the narrative on women's tennis and how it is covered here are a few suggestions
WTA, SPONSORS AND ADVERTISERS:
- encourage commentators to stop referring to professional athletes as girls
- disband on court coaching. Having some old man come down court side and hold the hands of a professional athlete is not a good look for the sport
- market the women as athletes, always. No ifs, ands or buts. That is what they are. If they want to be considered models, someone should tell them that they are in the wrong line of work
- encourage the media to end the grunting debate. It is silly and it is not going anywhere
FANS AND MEDIA
- get to know the players. It is not all about personalities. They are human beings with thoughts and feelings. They are also incredibly intelligent
- not every tennis player is from an English speaking country. They come from all walks of life. Learn to pronounce their names and find out a little bit about them, especially when they turn up playing an English speaking player on Centre Court and you have to try to pronounce her name
- try not to make fun of the empty stands at women's events. Times are hard the world over and disposable income is not so easily obtained. Enjoy the match. Tweet wonderful things about the players and the match. The players do read Twitter and they do like to see the positive feedback about their matches.
- Try not to be like Barry Flatman. Don't send nasty tweets to players. Not even Tara Moore deserved the nasty tweets that she got during the French Open.
- Encourage your fellow tennis friends to tune in to watch a player that no one has ever heard about. Remind them that this is why Simona Halep is so popular. We knew her before the world did.
- Bloggers, feature one player each week on your blog who is ranked outside the top 100 who you think will make it big. Try to get in touch with her management company or send questions and get an interview. You will pat yourself on the back when she is ranked in the top 100.
Any other ideas, sound off in the comments.