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04 Jul 2003 00:00
When Justine Henin-Hardenne managed to beat Serena Williams in the French Open semifinal, the American 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.
Various explanations were offered to explain the crowd’s hostility towards Serena, including support for the underdog and the number of Belgians there. Both were no doubt part of the explanation, but the most likely one — racism — barely got a mention.
The antipathy of a tennis crowd is hardly a new experience for the Williams sisters. In the semifinals of the US Open last year, the US crowd supported Amelie 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 blonde American teenager Ashley Harkleroad knocked out Daniela Hantuchova — the Eurosport commentator, a former player, excitedly declared that perhaps the US had found the women’s champion it was looking for. And the Williams sisters? 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 nigger.
“One guy said, ‘I wish it was 1975 [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’s 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 under-standing 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 physiques are somehow an unfair advantage (those of African 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 “lily-white 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.
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 mainstream of society and, by the same token, from the back to the front pages, it is not good enough to pretend it 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. —
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