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Tennis is racist - it's time we did something about it
As race courses through the veins of tennis, people pretend it doesn't exist
Wednesday June 25, 2003
When Serena Williams was beaten by Justine Henin-Hardenne in the French Open semi-final, she was booed every time she questioned a decision - even when she was clearly in the right. And, towards the end of the match, every first serve she missed was greeted with loud cheers.
Unsurprisingly, Williams was reduced to tears. At the end, she was booed off, just as her sister Venus had been after her defeat by Russia's Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round. Various explanations were offered to explain the crowd 's hostility to Serena, including support for the underdog and the number of Belgians there. Both were no doubt part of the explanation but the most likely - racism - barely got a mention.
The antipathy of a tennis crowd is hardly a new experience for the Williams sisters In the semi-finals of the US Open last year, the American crowd supported Amélie Mauresmo of France rather than Venus: for the overwhelmingly white, middle-class crowd, the bond of colour clearly counted for more than the bond of nation.
During a second round match at this year 's Roland Garros, when a blonde American teenager, Ashley Harkleroad, knocked out Daniela Hantuchova, the Eurosport commentator, a former player, excitedly declared that perhaps America had found the women 's champion it was looking for. And the Williams sisters, pray? Sorry, wrong colour.
At the Indian Wells final in 2001, Serena was jeered the moment she appeared on court and was booed throughout. Her father, Richard, described how, as "Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me ******. One guy said, 'I wish it was '75 [alluding to the Los Angeles race riots ]; we'd skin you alive.'"
None of this should be surprising. Tennis is an overwhelmingly white middle-class sport, both in those who play and those who watch. Until the Williams' emergence, the only previous black grand-slam champions were Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah. Western societies - be they European or American - are deeply racist: notwithstanding that veneer of politeness and refinement, the middle-class is certainly no exception.
Although Venus and Serena got a warm reception in their opening matches at Wimbledon, the fact is there will be few brown or black faces in the crowd, and little understanding or sympathy for what it is like to be black from spectators, commentators or tennis reporters. For the great majority, the sisters are from an alien world compared with their white opponents.
The extraordinary thing is that this is hardly ever written or said. As race courses through the veins of tennis, people pretend it doesn't exist. Instead the Williams sisters, together with their father, are subjected to a steady stream of criticism, denigration, accusation and innuendo: their physique is somehow an unfair advantage (those of Afro descent are built differently), they are arrogant and aloof (they are proud and self-confident), they are not popular with the other players (they come from a very different culture and, let us not forget, there is plenty of evidence of racism among their colleagues: comments made by Martina Hingis spring to mind, not to mention the behaviour of Lleyton Hewitt towards a black linesman in last year's US Open).
And Richard, a man of some genius, is painted as a ridiculous and absurd figure, match-fixer, svengali and the rest of it. Most racism - especially middle-class racism - is neither crude nor explicit but subtle and nuanced, masquerading as fair comment about personal qualities rather than the prejudice it is.
The achievement of the Williams sisters is towering. Coming from a black ghetto in Los Angeles, riven by drugs and guns, they have scaled the heights of what their father has accurately described as a "lilywhite sport", with enormous verve and skill, and in the process have dealt with the prejudice of the tennis establishment, the players, the crowds and the media with great grace and dignity.
It is often said that one of the reasons crowds favour their opponents is that they like to side with the underdog. Yet, when the Williamses arrived on the scene they rarely received support even though they were the underdogs. And, by any standards, given what and where they have come from, Venus and Serena remain just that.
Now that sport has made the transition to the main stream of society and, by the same token, from the back to the front pages, it is not good enough to pretend that sport - any sport - is a culture free, value free zone. The ubiquity of racism in football is just beginning to get the attention it deserves. And so it should: football houses the biggest single manifestation of racism in most European societies. And the same goes for other sports. It is no longer good enough for reporters and commentators to turn a blind eye to racism.
Tennis - including lily-white Wimbledon - should be no exception.