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My Point: Racism and tennis
by George Vecsey

Now that the Williams sisters are potential finalists in any tournament they deign to enter, the issue of race is going to be with us. Martina Hingis has said that Richard Williams, the father of the two players, is quick to claim prejudice on the women's tour. And Richard fires back about the racist tennis establishment. By forcing tennis to come to terms with racial issues, the Williams sisters are leading the game into a more open-minded era.
From the FEBRUARY 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine

In a sport where competitors are separated by a net and pitted against each other like boxers, it's hard to distinguish racism from solipsism. The problem is, most tennis players have no context for race. Anybody or anything can be an intrusion to Americans, Europeans, and South Americans who've grown up in all-white neighborhoods and clubs. Having watched the icy body language in women's tennis during the last few years, it's clear that some players
simply don't like the Williams sisters, and vice versa. They've experienced what Oracene Williams, their refined mother, calls her daughters' 'austerity,' and they've given it a racial connotation.

'God knows that African-Americans have a big bone to pick with white people,' says Martina Navratilova. 'I've seen it myself. You can really have a chip on your shoulder. I think they [the Williams family] have handled it really well.'

Navratilova is also correct in suspecting that racial baggage floats around the player lounges. 'People should be more sensitive,' she says. 'I mean, we don't live in a bubble.'>{? And that's the point: There's so little color on the tours, players can cruise along with their own stereotypes. Then they run into American sensitivities.

That's what happened to Lleyton Hewitt, an Australian who made an ass of himself at the 2001 U.S. Open by claiming that an African-American linesman made calls in favor of James Blake, who has a black father and a white mother. USTA officials went through the motions of investigating, but ultimately let the issue drop.

Needless to say, Richard Williams got into the act, alluding to Australia's checkered history with the Aborigines. Hewitt shrugged it off, then showed his inner strength by winning his first major.

'You can't make too much of the comments of a 20-year-old,' says Boris Becker, who has long spoken out against racism and was married to a German woman who has an African-American father. 'These are young people and they will say anything to help themselves in the middle of a match. They don't mean anything by it.'

As far as the women's game is concerned, 'I don't think race is a problem on the tour,' says Becker. 'You have two strong female players [the Williamses] who are dominating, and that is hard for the other girls to accept.'

They'd better get used to it. The Williams sisters will be here for as long as they want to be. Black fans are celebrating the way people did half a century ago, when Jackie Robinson was winning baseball games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the Williamses' core constituency goes well beyond that. The tennis establishment seems delighted with these talented siblings, as well it should. Indeed, the sisters used to display a certain hauteur, but lately
they've demonstrated a mature grace in victory and even in the rare defeat. The game could also use a few more Arthur Ashes on the men's side, with or without his statesmanlike demeanor.

By hiring the sisters to hawk their products, corporate America seems to be getting the picture as well. In the meantime, we have Oracene Williams proffering wisdom and poise to her daughters, while her husband provides his eccentric vision and 1960's bombast, a blast from the past -- not always reliable, but whatever.

Because I come from his generation (albeit I'm white), I understand him. He's a prickly witness to a lot of nasty history. He's going to goad us about race, and that's not so bad.
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