x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Wimbledon: Class, composure and controversy of Serena Williams

Having taken a tough route to the top and overcoming more obstacles, the women's world No 1 is riding high once again, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Serena Williams looks like the one to beat at Wimbledon.
Serena Williams looks like the one to beat at Wimbledon.

It is impossible to take all the Cs away from Serena Williams's life. There is Compton, California - the rough neighbourhood where she grew up and started her tennis journey on glass-strewn public courts.

Then there is the issue of "colour", which has divided the tennis world since father Richard Williams presented his two daughters, Venus and Serena, as "the ghetto Cinderellas of the lily-white tennis world".

That was back in 1995, when Serena made her professional debut as a 14-year-old. In the 18 years hence, she has won 16 grand slams and 52 WTA Tour singles titles, but "controversies" have never left her side.

Despite all those trophies residing on her shelf, Serena's "commitment" to the sport has been questioned through the years, particularly through a period when she hobnobbed with the fashion and entertainment industry. And then she has copped more "criticism" than most players.

On the other side, Serena's "courage" has been applauded as well – the way she has bounced back from every setback, including injuries and a life-threatening illness. And then there is her self-professed "cool" and those "catsuits" that made the headlines in 2002.

Last August, she added one more to that list: the "C-Walk". Moments after becoming the first woman to complete a career Golden Slam since Steffi Graf with a 63-minute demolition of Maria Sharapova in the Olympic final, Serena broke into a jig – for a mere three seconds – and the self-righteous of the world took her to task.

The C-Walk, or Crip Walk, is a hip-hop dance that was made famous in the 1970s by a Los Angeles gang, The Crips, who were known for their ruthless murders and drug dealings.

"What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church," Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock wrote on his blog. "Serena deserved to be called out. What she did was immature and classless."

Bill Plaschke, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted: "Isn't there some kind of dance done by multimillionaires who live in exclusive South Florida neighbourhoods? Serena C-walking at Wimbledon only shows how long she's been away from home, separated from violence and death associated with that dance."

Debbie Schlussel, a blogger, wrote: "Yup, that's what we need representing America, a Gold Medallist who, upon winning, glorifies hardened criminals who murder each other – and innocent Americans – for sport."

But, as another tennis writer pointed out, Adolf Hitler introduced the Olympic torch relay at the 1936 Berlin Games. Should we deplore all those who run with the torch then?

Serena, herself, was not too bothered by all the criticism.

"I don't care," she said. "That's the least of my worries ... I'm so excited I was able to do the dance. I'm glad I did it!"

That dismissive nonchalance has never gone down well with her critics, but Serena has faced worse in life and tennis. She was booed off the courts at Indian Wells in 2001 and one fan, allegedly, told her father: "I wish it was 1975; we'd skin you alive."

She was booed at the 2003 French Open as well and at the 2007 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, a heckling spectator told her to "hit the ball into the net like any negro would".

At the 2010 and 2011 Wimbledon tournaments, the Williams sisters regularly played their matches on Court Two, while lesser lights appeared on Centre Court. Her fellow tennis professionals – Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki – have regularly made fun of Serena's voluptuous body.

These incidents forced The Guardian's Martin Jacques to bring the issue of racism in tennis out in the open a few years back. In an article headlined, "Tennis is racist – it's time we did something about it", he wrote: "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 physique is somehow an unfair advantage [those of Afro 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 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."

Richard Williams is a genius indeed. He knew what his daughters would face and he had prepared them from an early age. When he took his girls to practise on those courts in Compton, he paid neighbourhood kids to stand at the fence and shout obscenities and racial insults at them.

"He'd say, 'Rick, I want someone to play Venus today who cheats a lot, maybe a kid who doesn't like us a lot'," Rick Macci, one of the sisters' first coaches, once said. "And this is when they were 10 and 11-years-old."

Serena still gets such abuse, not so much from the courtside, but plenty of it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like.

"Within a culture that thrives on stories of redemption, that celebrates resilience and determination, the career of Serena Williams reads like a Hollywood screenplay," David J Leonard, an associate professor at Washington State University, wrote a couple of years back. "Yet, her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism."

The corporate elite seems to be culpable as well, and Forbes' annual list of the 100 highest-paid athletes provides proof every year. Among six tennis players on the newest list, Serena's earning from endorsements was the lowest. And she has been the best tennis player – male or female – over the past 12 months. Sharapova, who has not beaten Serena in nine years, made US$23 million (Dh84.4m) in endorsements compared to Serena's $12m.

Rolling Stone magazine recently made a mention of the difference between Serena and Sharapova's endorsement portfolios. "Here are the facts," it said in its last issue. "Serena is the No 1 tennis player in the world. Maria Sharapova is the No 2 tennis player in the world. Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas."

That mean monster truck is whirring again, ready to mow through the field on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Few seem capable of stopping her.

"Je suis incroyable [I am incredible]," she said after her French Open triumph earlier this month. And if I may add another C-word to that, she is an incredible champion, in a class of her own.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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