Commentators ruin just about everything about the only sport I have ever liked. They are literally paid to disrupt the match, discussing the weather and other banalities during play while being conveniently unhelpful whenever there is controversy on the court. I was well prepared to document their shit this year when I excitedly watched Serena Williams play killer tennis at the US Open. She defeated Sara Errani in the semifinals, competing the following night after Andy Roddick’s retirement match. In this case, I couldn’t decide whether the commentators’ tireless speculation about Serena’s retirement during her match was more annoying than their merciless hounding after her match when they interviewed her with countless passive-aggressive references to her age. Even the reporter outside the locker room who interviewed her before the match asked her to comment on Roddick’s retirement, callously asking if her disappointment would sour her incredible athletic skills. Who asks a WOC athlete on a blazing trail of victory fresh off the flames of an Olympic gold medal: shouldn’t you be preparing to quit, shouldn’t you be off your game? This is a perfect example of how racism can be subtle.
Serena Williams is one of five Black female tennis stars of the last century, Althea Gibson being the first to become champion at all major tournaments in the US, France, England, and Australia in the 1950s. When white men compete, TV viewers hear all about legends of the past and generations of greatness. But never once during Serena’s semifinals or finals match did anyone mention the Black women that preceded her or Black tennis players in general. Venus Williams entered the discussion solely on the basis of being Serena’s sister. Even though Serena’s finals match with Victoria Azarenka went to a third set—the first time a women’s singles match has done this in 17 years—there was no commotion over how significant this was, only mention that it was happening. Tonight I watched the men’s singles finals match between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, and the male commentators went apeshit over the five set/five hour match being “epic,” “magnificent,” and “historic.” Serena got twelve aces in the first two sets of her semifinals match against Errani—twelve—and the commentators said she was playing “unsteady tennis.” Serena had over forty unforced errors in her finals match against Azarenka and they wouldn’t shut up about it.
Sure, the mouths behind the mics talk up Serena’s impressive serve a lot. During the major matches of this year’s US Open that I watched Serena play, they talked about it more than any other part of her game. It got to a point where it seemed like they were fetishizing her serve, like it was incomprehensibly fast and exotically strong “for a woman.” This attitude reveals two things: the anxiety that a Black player is strangely more amazing than most white players at something, and the idea that a Black player is “less of a woman” because she serves “like a man.” How long have white folks in the US been creating these deviant, masculinized stereotypes about Black women? Since the days of chattel slavery. Even though commentators discuss her serve this way, one was quick to doubt her ability to compete with men. As Serena cruised onto the court for her finals match with Azarenka, this particular mouthpiece offered the anecdote that Errani had told Williams after her victory in the semifinals that she “should go play men.” This white woman didn’t miss a beat when she said “Well I don’t know about THAT.” So Serena serves “like a man” but can’t compete with men? White logic: game, set, and match.
Serena is described repeatedly with two defining adjectives: powerful and strong. No matter how often she dominates on the court, no matter how many titles she’s won, there are still commentators who admit their surprise about her being “mentally tough.” This was the case in her match against Errani. If tennis was exclusively about physical strength and had nothing to do with control, strategy, calculation, and mental strength then it would be fantastically boring. Some people might find the sport boring either way, but my point is that physicality is not the deciding factor in becoming a tennis champion. Serena is not only my all-time favorite athlete, but she is also one of the greatest and most brilliant players in history. To discuss her physicality obsessively and credit her success to her muscles is insulting to her career, and has everything to do with reading her Blackness with a white lens. Australian player Samantha Stosur has a serious set of biceps and competes with ferocity, but, as a white player, these aspects of her game are rarely forced under a microscope at every moment.
Stosur defeated Williams in the “explosive” 2011 US Open match where the chair umpire ruled Serena’s shouting of “Come on!” before Stosur was able to return the ball meant she lost the point. The rules of tennis dictate that if a player is unintentionally distracted by their opponent before they return the ball, then the point should be replayed. This is exactly what happened in this year’s semifinals match between Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych: the wind took Murray’s hat off his head as he scored a point, but Berdych was the one who challenged the point and claimed he was distracted. The chair umpire ruled that the point should be replayed. He did not decide on his own that Murray should automatically lose the point for an unintentional distraction—Serena was not so lucky, or so respected. She has been widely criticized and shamed for her “outburst,” and was fined a record $82,500 from the Grand Slam Committee in addition to the $10,000 from the US Tennis Association after her “outburst” at the 2009 US Open. Meanwhile, John McEnroe is one of the most beloved and celebrated retired players, not to mention the most sought-after for match commentary, even though he has multiple epic “outbursts” under his belt.
So much has been said about how “calm” and “reserved” Serena was this time around at the Open. The commentators have been so “proud” of her for keeping her cool and her focus… as if flying into rages and temper tantrums were her natural state as a competitor, as if she is naturally a loose cannon instead of an athlete who challenges bullshit calls. They patronize her for “finally” keeping her “passion” in check and putting on her “game face.” How long have white folks been creating stereotypes about Black women being unhinged, out of control, and overly “emotional”? Since the days of chattel slavery. Plenty of male tennis players are repeat offenders when it comes to court misconduct, but, curiously, there is something uniquely and especially unacceptable about Serena’s misconduct. All of the calls made against her that provoked her objections (all of them made at suspiciously crucial points in a game), were easily debatable in their legitimacy, but Serena’s “temper” is the main subject. If the subject changes, it changes to how she had no right to “lose it.” This is her fourth US Open title, and she won because she is an exceptionally talented player at the top of her sport, because no other players in her generation can compare. She did not win because she avoided yelling at someone. No one needs to talk about her emotions when there’s no end to what can be said about her game.