Peter Shelton

Like Drama Follows Them

Posted in More Sport by pshelton on September 14, 2009

In light of Serena Willliams’ profane meltdown at the U.S. Open last weekend, I offer the following, originally published in The Watch newspaper, June 11, 2009.

If tennis were a game of manners—I know, that part of the game vanished ages ago, even before John McEnroe made television lip reading fun—but if it were still a game of polite sportsmanship, Serena Williams would have been ousted for her verbal performance in the third round of the French Open last week.

She won that match but ended up losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and some followers of the Williams sisters, Serena and older sibling Venus, were not particularly sorry to see her go.

The reason? They are egotistical bores, Serena especially, who at 27 ought to have learned better life skills by now. The Williams sisters have always got an excuse. It’s never that they ran into an opponent playing brilliantly. It’s as if, in their minds, without something going terribly, unfairly wrong, they would win every match, every tournament. And, in fact, that’s the way their father raised them.

In her third-round match against Maria Martinez Sanchez, Serena ripped a backhand right at Sanchez who was standing at the net. Sanchez reacted instinctively to protect herself, the ball caromed off her racket or her body or both, and fell into Serena’s court for a winner. The umpire called the point for Sanchez and Serena went into bitch mode, convinced the ball had glanced off Sanchez’s arm.

During her prolonged argument with the umpire, which she lost, Serena was caught on microphone threatening, “She better not come to the net again!” After the match, which Serena won, she called Sanchez “a cheater.” Then she complained that she, Serena, was the one being persecuted: “I’m, like, drama. I’m, like, one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them because no matter what they do, like, drama follows them. I don’t want to be that girl.”

Oh, really? Big talent, big bodies, and big drama have always been part of the Williams story. They were taught the game, on the public courts of Compton in south-central L.A., by their volcanic father, Richard, who has stated for the record that he “hates” white people. His daughters are always going to be discriminated against by the racist tennis establishment, he says. And, in an odd twist on Black Power logic, he insists they deserve to win.

Why he chose tennis for them is a bafflement, until you see them play. Their size and strength revolutionized the women’s game when they turned pro a decade ago. Venus is well over six feet tall, and serves the ball harder than many men on tour. Serena claims to be 5’ 9” and 130 lbs, but that weight couldn’t be right. In her custom-designed tennis togs she looks straight out of the comics—one of R. Crumb’s fabulously-endowed, big-legged women.

And they have won a ton. Seventeen Grand Slam titles between them, 10 for Serena. While American men have achieved squat since Andre Agassi 10 years ago, the Williams sisters have dominated, at times, kept the American sports public interested in tennis, and inspired an international generation of bigger, faster, more physical women players.

But I am no longer interested in celebrating their achievements. The whining gets to me. Serena whining in April when the young Russian Dinara Safina was named the new number one player on tour. I should be number one, Serena groused to the media, even though the rankings are based solely on a WTA points system, and Safina had nearly 2000 more points (98001-7838) than she did.

Then in the quarterfinals in Paris, Serena was beaten in a gutsy comeback by Kuznetsova, who outplayed her more-gifted opponent. Did Serena graciously congratulate her rival and wish her well in the next round? Here’s what she said at the post-match press conference: “I got really tight, and I pretty much gave it to her. It was, like, ‘Here. Do you want to go to the semis? Because I don’t.’ She was, like, ‘OK.’ Honestly, I think I lost because of me, and not because of anything she did.”

Top-level athletes in individual sports like tennis are going to have healthy egos. But this is ridiculous. This is pure, self-absorbed, misplaced entitlement. And it’s gotten old.

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