Racism Abound at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — They have both made the Wimbledon final – again, they have won six of the past eight Grand Slams, and the rise of two sisters from such humble beginnings to the top of tennis is, by any definition, extraordinary. WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — They have both made the Wimbledon final – again, they have won six of the past eight Grand Slams, and the rise of two sisters from such humble beginnings to the top of tennis is, by any definition, extraordinary. So why aren’t Serena and Venus Williams more popular?

Almost every time one of them steps on court, the crowd’s cheers are louder for their opponent. During that already infamous French Open semi-final against Justine Henin-Hardenne, the Paris fans booed and heckled Serena, who said later, through tears: “It was a very, very tough public out there, very tough, but that is the story of my life. I have always had to fight hard in my life and it is another battle I am going to have to win. I always try to please the crowd with my game. It's hard to fight against the whole crowd and it was not nice to hear the people applaud my mistakes.”

It’s not just the French. The Williams sisters have been booed at a tournament in California. They also have few friends on the tour, and are not particularly popular with the travelling tennis media. Why is it that they are admired and respected by most, but not loved? And should it matter?

The Williamses are not the first champion tennis players to have an ambivalent relationship with the crowd. Martina Navratilova found it hard to win over fans when she was playing, and Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis have all at one time felt the sting of a crowd’s rejection.

When Navratilova beat Evert in the 1984 US Open final, the fans cheered wildly for Evert. And yet when she lost to Hana Mandlikova in the same final the following year, the crowds barracked for the Czech against the American.

“When it happened to me, I felt really upset about it. I felt it was undeserved. You are penalised for being excellent,” she said.

The obvious explanation, according to Navratilova and Tracy Austin, the US Open Champion of 1979 and 1981, is that sports fans prefer to cheer for the underdog. The Williams sisters have been so successful over the past few years, especially Serena recently, that people want variety on the winner’s podium.

“I think fans like seeing different players at the top. I just feel like Serena needs to take what happened at the French, if she can, as a compliment. It was because she is so good. I don’t think the French crowd were knowledgeable; they probably wanted a new champion,” said Austin.

So a relatively even rivalry is much more enjoyable than one-way domination. Women’s tennis is much more prone than men’s tennis to having one player head and shoulders above the rest. Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Seles, Hingis and the Williamses have, for periods of a year or more, seemed almost impossible to beat, whereas over the same 30-year period, male players may have won one Grand Slam year after year (Bjorn Borg at the French and Wimbledon in the late 1970s, and Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in the ‘90s), but none were able to win all year round.

Yet, as the commentator Martin Jacques wrote in The Guardian last week, the Williams sisters did not receive that much crowd support well before either got to No. 1, when they were the underdogs. He suggests that race is the key reason in a sport that has an overwhelmingly white, middle-class history.

“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 understanding 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.”

There are only a handful of black players on the men’s and women’s tours, and tennis fans are more conservative than those in some other sports. Navratilova insists racism is not a factor. “It’s not racist, it’s

July 7, 2003
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