The Williams Sisters and Us
The Williams Sisters and Us
It’s been suggested that those who root against the powerful tennis siblings are racist. No, there are other reasons
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Sept. 12 — Back in tennis’ Pleiocene era, when I thought my wooden Wilson Jack Kramer was the cat’s meow, my brother and I considered the national doubles championships a sacred pilgrimage each summer. This was back when the best players actually played—and cared about—doubles competition.
AMERICA’S TOP PAIRS, like McKinley and Ralston or Graebner and Riessen, squared off against Aussie legends like Emerson and Stolle or Newcombe and Roche. My brother and I could get pretty stoked up rooting for our favorites—which inevitably proved to be the Aussies, who were stylish, good-humored and classy as opposed to the temperamental, tantrum-prone Yanks.
I recalled this after the recent mini-fuss over how some U.S. Open fans were cheering against America’s supersisters, Venus and Serena Williams, in their semifinal matches against Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo, respectively. While the sentiments on behalf of Davenport, an American and a former Open champ making a comeback from injury, were easily explained, the support for the French lass was a tad more surprising. And inevitably some observers concluded that there was a taint of racism in the air at Flushing Meadows.
Race is an issue that is interwoven into the very fabric of American society and racism an everyday part of life. So it is a little hard to disprove that racism was at play in any significant way at the Open. But there are certainly some emotionally valid reasons to cheer for the opposition against the Williamses, reasons having nothing to do with race or, for that matter, decorum (since the sisters are exemplary on that score). Even before the U.S. Open, I expressed my disinterest in watching another finals between these ladies. Their matches, while providing some moments unparalleled in the women’s game, remain a joyless exercise and leave me feeling voyeuristic, as if I’ve intruded on what they’d much prefer to be a private ritual.
There is also something downright American in rooting for the underdog, even if that underdog happens to be a French woman. It is not simply that the Williams sisters are such prohibitive favorites now, but the overpowering fashion in which they now dispatch all their rivals. They’ve taken all the juice out of what fairly recently was a very juicy game. More power to them (although more power is hard to imagine), but a host of superstars who have dominated a sport in such fashion—Shaquille O’Neal comes readily to mind—have discovered, sometimes painfully, that they are not necessarily fan favorites everywhere they go. That Tiger Woods, another dominator, remains an immense fan favorite, may have something to do with the fact that he still loses more often than he wins. Still, I suspect most folks were rooting for virtual unknown Rich Beem to hold the Tiger at bay for the PGA title.
Of course, racism isn’t the only stigma one risks for being a minority voice in the sporting stands of this country. I’ve been told more than once that it is unpatriotic to root—under any circumstance—against an American team or competitor, an accusation that is fraught with far more emotion in the past year. Yet is there is a basketball fan alive who wasn’t delighted to see our NBA guys get their comeuppance from Argentina, Yugloslavia and Spain at the recent World Championships in Indianapolis? Then there’s the Ryder Cup. When it was held in my hometown three years ago, both the American team and its fans ran a bit rowdy, not what is regarded good form at The Country Club. When the rematch is held next week at The Belfry in England, I know that more than a few golfing buffs here will be secretly pulling for the underdog and always overachieving Europeans to exact some revenge.
Or perhaps not so secretly. Earlier this year, I proclaimed loudly that, while the Miracle on Ice remains one of my most treasured sporting memories, I was pulling against another American hockey upset in Salt Lake. My attitudes toward sports have probably changed a great deal in 40 years but not my views on the fundamental issues of decorum and sportsmanship. The U.S. hockey team had proved an embarrassment four years before in Japan with its refusal to fess up to the vandalism at the Olympic village. I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of watching the same gang celebrating the Olympic ideal from a perch on the gold-medal podium. On the other hand, it was a blast pulling for our World Cup team. The United States is the world’s bully boy in so many sports that we seldom experience the kick of watching the red, white and blue beat the world at their own game of soccer.
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In the end, I take rather a First Amendment approach to rooting (as well as, since its worth mentioning these days, to pretty much everything else the First Amendment is really intended to protect). Root for the home team. Root for the visitors if you please. I bear no menace toward Yankee fans at Fenway Park; I may deplore the team, as a Boston boy should, but recognize kindred spirits in the passionate loyalties of New Yorkers. Root for the Americans, my choice more often than not. Or for the Lithuanian roundballers with their Grateful Dead uniforms, for the Korean soccer team in admiration of their relentless effort, for the champion gay volleyballers, “The Iron Ladies,” from Bangkok. Or for all of the above. Whoever moves you.
As for the Williams sisters, as long as they live together, practice together and appear inseparable, they will remain exemplary siblings but lackluster rivals. In life the former is far more important. Just don’t be surprised—or accusatory—when I really don’t want to witness the latter.
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.