Serena Williams: How to be a successful black tennis player.

How Serena Williams Survived in the Lily-White World of Women’s Tennis

How Serena Williams Survived in the Lily-White World of Women’s Tennis

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 17 2015 9:00 AM

Graphite Against a Sharp White Background

How to be a successful black tennis player.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams plays against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at the Foro Italico on May 12, 2015, in Rome.

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Excerpted from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Out now from Graywolf Press.

One Sunday afternoon, drinking an Arnold Palmer, watching the 2009 Women’s U.S. Open semifinal you are brought to full attention by the suddenly explosive behavior of Serena Williams. Serena in HD before your eyes becomes overcome by a rage you recognize and have been taught to hold at a distance for your own good. Serena’s behavior, on this particular Sunday afternoon, suggests that all the injustice she has played through all the years of her illustrious career flashes before her and she decides finally to respond to all of it with a string of invectives. Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.

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What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.

Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: They win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters boycotted for more than a decade), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.

For years you attribute to Serena Williams a kind of resilience appropriate only for those who exist in celluloid. Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor the Nike camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world. From the start many made it clear Serena would have done better struggling to survive in the two-dimensionality of a Millet painting, rather than on their tennis court—better to put all that strength to work in their fantasy of her working the land, rather than be caught up in the turbulence of our ancient dramas, like a ship fighting a storm in a Turner seascape.

The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Mariana Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004, Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the U.S. Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her quarterfinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Commentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening. Serena, in her denim skirt, black sneaker boots, and dark mascara, began wagging her finger and saying, “No, no, no,” as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world. Tennis superstar John McEnroe, given his own keen eye for injustice during his professional career, was shocked that Serena was able to hold it together after losing the match.

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Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’ sightline. One commentator said he hoped he wasn’t being unkind when he stated, “Capriati wins it with the help of the umpires and the lines judges.” A year later that match would be credited for demonstrating the need for the speedy installation of Hawk-Eye, the line-calling technology that took the seeing away from the beholder. Now the umpire’s call can be challenged by a replay; however, back then after the match Serena said, “I’m very angry and bitter right now. I felt cheated. Shall I go on? I just feel robbed.”

And though you felt outrage for Serena after that 2004 U.S. Open, as the years go by, she seems to put Alves, and a lengthening list of other curious calls and oversights, against both her and her sister, behind her as they happen.

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through.

And here Serena is, five years after Alves, back at the U.S. Open, again in a semifinal match, this time against Belgium’s Kim Clijsters. Serena is not playing well and loses the first set. In response she smashes her racket on the court. Now McEnroe isn’t stunned by her ability to hold herself together and is moved to say, “That’s as angry as I’ve ever seen her.” The umpire gives her a warning; another violation will mean a point penalty.

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She is in the second set at the critical moment of 5–6 in Clijsters’ favor, serving to stay in the match, at match point. The line judge employed by the U.S. Open to watch Serena’s body, its every move, says Serena stepped on the line while serving. What? (The Hawk-Eye cameras don’t cover the feet, only the ball, apparently.) What! Are you serious? She is serious; she has seen a foot fault, one no one else is able to locate despite the numerous replays. “No foot fault, you definitely do not see a foot fault there,” says McEnroe. Even the ESPN tennis commentator, who seems predictable in her readiness to find fault with the Williams sisters, says, “Her foot fault call was way off.” Yes, and even if there had been a foot fault, despite the rule, they are rarely ever called at critical moments in a Grand Slam match because “You don’t make a call,” tennis official Carol Cox says, “that can decide a match unless it’s flagrant.”

And as Serena turns to the lineswoman and says, “I swear to God I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God!” As offensive as her outburst is, it is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately to being thrown against a sharp white background. It is difficult not to applaud her for existing in the moment, for fighting crazily against the so-called wrongness of her body’s positioning at the service line.

She says in 2009, belatedly, the words that should have been said to the umpire in 2004, the words that might have snapped Alves back into focus, a focus that would have acknowledged what actually was happening on the court. Now Serena’s reaction is read as insane. And her punishment for this moment of manumission is the threatened point penalty resulting in the loss of the match, an $82,500 fine, plus a two-year probationary period by the Grand Slam Committee.

Perhaps the committee’s decision is only about context, though context is not meaning. It is a public event being watched in homes across the world. In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America—is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.

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Two years later, Sept. 11, 2011, Serena is playing the Australian Sam Stosur in the U.S. Open final. She is expected to win, having just beaten the No. 1 player, the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, in the semifinal the night before. Serena is losing, a set and a game down. Yes, and finally she hits a great shot, a big forehand, and before the ball is safely past Sam Stosur’s hitting zone, Serena yells, “Come on!” thinking she has hit an irretrievable winner. The umpire, Eva Asderaki, rules correctly that Serena, by shouting, interfered with Stosur’s concentration. Subsequently, a ball that Stosur seemingly would not have been able to return becomes Stosur’s point. Serena’s reply is to ask the umpire if she is trying to screw her again. She remembers the umpire doing this to her before. As a viewer, you too, along with John McEnroe, begin to wonder if this is the same umpire from 2004 or 2009. It isn’t—in 2004 it was Mariana Alves and in 2009 it was Sharon Wright; however, the use of the word “again” by Serena returns her viewers to other times calling her body out.

For Serena, every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background. “Aren’t you the one that screwed me over last time here?” she asks umpire Asderaki. “Yeah, you are. Don’t look at me. Really, don’t even look at me. Don’t look my way. Don’t look my way,” she repeats, because it is that simple.

Yes, and who can turn away? Serena is not running out of breath. Despite all her understanding, she continues to serve up aces while smashing rackets and fraying hems. In the 2012 Olympics she brought home two of the three gold medals the Americans would win in tennis. After her 3-second celebratory dance on center court at the All England Club, the American media reported, “And there was Serena ... Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world. ... You couldn’t help but shake your head. ... What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church. ... What she did was immature and classless.”

Hennessy Youngman aka Jayson Musson, whose YouTube tutorials, Art Thoughtz, educate viewers on contemporary art issues, argues in his video “How to Be a Successful Artist” that one needs to be white to be truly successful. He adds, in an aside, that this might not work for blacks because if “a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad,” thereby intimating that any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property, which was the legal state of things once upon a time.

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Interviewed by the Brit Piers Morgan after her 2012 Olympic victory, Serena is informed by Morgan that he was planning on calling her victory dance “the Serena Shuffle”; however, he has learned from the American press that it is a crip walk, a gangster dance. Serena responds incredulously by asking if she looks like a gangster to him. Yes, he answers. All in a day’s fun, perhaps, and in spite and despite it all, Serena Williams blossoms again into Serena Williams.

Serena would go on to win every match she played between the U.S. Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, and because tennis is a game of adjustments, she would do this without any reaction to a number of questionable calls. More than one commentator would remark on her ability to hold it together during these matches. She is a woman in love, one suggests. She has grown up, another decides, as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.

Watching this newly contained Serena, you begin to wonder if she finally has given up wanting better from her peers or if she too has come across Hennessy’s Art Thoughtz and is channeling his assertion that the less that is communicated the better. Be ambiguous. This type of ambiguity could also be diagnosed as dissociation and would support Serena’s claim that she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae.

Now that there is no calling out of injustice, no yelling, no cursing, no finger wagging or head shaking, the media decides to take up the mantle when on Dec. 12, 2012, two weeks after Serena is named WTA Player of the Year, the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, a former No. 1 player, imitates Serena by stuffing towels in her top and shorts, all in good fun, at an exhibition match. Racist? CNN wants to know if outrage is the proper response.

It’s then that Hennessy’s suggestions about “how to be a successful artist” return to you: be ambiguous, be white. Wozniacki, it becomes clear, has finally enacted what was desired by many of Serena’s detractors, consciously or unconsciously, the moment the Compton girl first stepped on court. Wozniacki (though there are a number of ways to interpret her actions—playful mocking of a peer, imitation of the mimicking antics of the tennis player known as the joker, Novak Djokovic) finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s “angry nigger exterior” behind. At last, in this real, and unreal, moment, we have Wozniacki’s image of smiling blond goodness posing as the best female tennis player of all time.

Claudia Rankine, excerpt from Citizen. Copyright © 2014 by Claudia Rankine. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, www.graywolfpress.org.