Another very good article.`
Racist blight on the straight-laced
Sunday June 29, 2003
Martin Jacques wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday that 'race courses through the veins of tennis', using as a recent example the booing of Serena Williams in the semi-final of the French Open against the Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne.
She was cat-called during a fractious match (in which Henin-Hardenne did not behave well over disputed points) and when leaving the court. Williams, normally gracious in defeat or victory, offered her opponent the most perfunctory of handshakes and, at the press conference shortly afterwards, she cried. It was not something she was used to doing, she said.
You can believe it. Every public gesture she and her sister Venus make leaves the impression of a performance. And there is a good reason for that: given their background and colour, they have been forced to move ever so gently through a sport that is overwhelmingly white, middle-class and conservative. It is a process Tiger Woods has gone through in golf, a sport he was told (when he tried to make a statement about race early in his career) 'whispers not shouts'. He has been a model of inoffensiveness ever since.
So, when Jacques points the finger at tennis (he could have done the same with golf, or even cricket), he identified an uncomfortable truth, one that the Williams girls and Woods have known all their lives but which others choose to ignore. They understand that racism flourishes in such a straight-laced environment - and, at Roland Garros, it burst like a sore.
It is a peculiarly anonymous racism, too, a boo in the crowd that grows with a strength that cowards gain in numbers. They might have said they were just getting behind the underdog; they might have said they don't appreciate Serena's muscular tennis; they might even have convinced themselves of these tissue-thin excuses.
Who among the boo-boys in that crowd will not have thought they were giving offence and were happy to do so even though they must have known others would see them as racist? Yet, whether or not anyone else thinks the patrons in Paris were racist comes a poor second to whether or not Serena thought they were. She didn't cry over a bad line-call.
For the Williamses, racism is not an academic issue to discuss in this or any other column; it is reality. And Serena, it seems, copes by burying her emotions in public. She must have been deeply hurt to surrender to the tears that had been welling up for who knows how long.