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Everyone knows that I have always been a fan of the Williams sisters since day one. My mother, Bernice Coleman, is a superfan. Serena Williams is showing us that she is so much more than an athlete; she is a woman warrior.
Serena Williams rises to the occasion, consistently and without fail. She is evolving into more than just a great tennis player and tremendous athlete-Serena Williams is a woman that we are all learning to respect, admire, and love.
We feel her pain, and we are on her side. The more we learn about Serena Williams, the more we like her, and the more powerful she becomes.
What happened at the U.S. Open
Last week, I went to see Serena Williams play at the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. It was a historic match that I might not be able to witness again because it was a chance to see two Williams sisters play in one match. That night, everyone felt the bittersweet nature of her win because she beat her sister, Venus Williams, to make it through to the next round. As Serena later explained in her interview after the match, “Venus is my more than my sister. She’s my everything. I am here because of her.”
In the U.S. Open finals, Serena Williams was playing Naomi Osaka at Billie Jean King Stadium. Serena Williams was penalized a point, then a game, then fined $17,000 for… playing the game. Tennis players know that a double standard and gender bias was on display when Carlos Ramos, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) chair umpire, along with others in his position, tolerated similar behavior from male players without penalty or response yet, for some reason, decided to penalize Serena in what seemed like an unusually emotional way. His reflexive response elicited an even more emotional response from Serena Williams, a warrior who has been wearing her heart on her sleeve more and more since becoming a mother.
Most of us wondered why he responded to her in such a way. What made it different for Serena Williams was that: 1) the objection was coming from a woman, 2) it was coming from a woman of color, specifically a woman of African descent, and 3) this was a finals match between two women of African descent; Naomi Osaka is Japanese-Haitian-American.
Rather than rule in favor of the ITF guidelines, with which he has a wide range of discretion, Ramos appeared to respond in a directly personal way against Serena.
A case of injustice
Serena is arguably the greatest athlete in the world. She young, she’s entrepreneurial, she’s wealthy, and she is hardworking and talented beyond belief. Highly competitive, she is an individual who expresses herself with her words, her actions, and her fashion. Serena is also human. She was on a comeback trail after having her daughter and experiencing life-threatening setbacks, determined to make history. Importantly, she was coming back during this particular match at this particular point.
Serena Williams initially tried to use rationale to make her case, then lashed out in frustration, calling Ramos “a thief” as she pointed out his unfairness and locked eyes on him. This seemed to set him off right after he took a point from her and he, therefore, decided to take an entire game from her.
There was clearly a different standard applied by the umpire chair. No disrespect is meant to Naomi Osaka, who is an awesome tennis player. Serena graciously hugged her and attempted to draw attention from herself to legitimize her Osaka’s win. This demonstrates Serena’s sisterly spirit. Unfortunately, Naomi Osaka’s win was tainted by Ramos’ unusual actions.
Poor Naomi… you could see that she did not quite know how to feel after winning the tournament against her idol in such a fashion. She felt the injustice, too.
Abuse of power
The power dynamics were clear: Ramos did not like how Ms. Williams was talking to him. He was threatened by Serena Williams (yes, she is a powerhouse). He used the authority of his position to try to put her down and take something away from her. He was aggressive in his tactic and it was painful for all of us watching. We all saw her being undermined and subjected to penalties that few other players experience, especially male players. We saw Serena get upset about not winning.
Black women like myself recognize what Serena was going through and even those in the audience were stunned at this unfair and unwelcome insertion of chair umpire authority. Due to my experiences at Princeton University, I am familiar with the intense racial, gender, economic, and class biases that Serena and Venus Williams were reportedly subjected to as young, gifted, and vulnerable Black girls engaging in traditional tennis tournament play. I think that Serena’s U.S. Open 2018 response was likely a cumulative response to her many of her negative experiences where people tried to block her from winning, not just this singular event.
What doesn’t kill you…
I have been called “uppity” and sabotaged by older European/White men in power who tried to break me, too.It did not work with me and it does not work with Serena Williams, either. Instead of getting weaker, I see Serena Williams expanding, getting stronger, becoming more powerful with more allies, more support, and more admiration. Passion and emotion, displayed by both male and female athletes, are assets, not liabilities. Serena was not “hysterical.” She wanted to win and Serena’s frustration, shared by many watching, was not unlike other champion athletes. Over the years, I have seen her pick her battles, take responsibility, and state her positions.
So, no worries, Serena Williams is going to be just fine.
Breaking down barriers, challenging the status quo and being a woman warrior is hard work. It is not easy. The resilience that we build up through our trials comes at a cost and the outcomes are not always immediate. Yet, there is great benefit.
Serena is a visionary who sees how her efforts now can benefit other women and girls, like her daughter. Being a trailblazer means creating a path where none exists. Serena Williams has been doing this her entire life. She is an elite fighter who is self-possessed and self-aware. Her critics want her to be more one dimensional, to just play tennis, smile, and be quiet. Instead, because Serena Williams, uses her voice, we are discussing issues of social importance that are challenging our norms and elevating our perspectives. It is no accident that her collection from Virgil Abloh and Nike is known as the queen collection.
Serena Williams has been through it all: banning of outfits, hateful name-calling, overzealous drug testing, “bumps” by opponents when switching sides, prejudice and racism, sexism, and medical events on and off of the court. Serena Wiliams is still here and she is standing tall for all of us as women and as an iconic role model for our girls, just like she was for Naomi Osaka. Ironically, by trying to suppress her spirit, she is becoming even greater. Whether you realize it or not, we are all reaping the benefits of this warrior woman’s efforts.