Tennis Player Gone Wild

Throughout its history, tennis has struggled against its image as a country club sport, and not undeservedly so.  What we know today as tennis ( formerly lawn tennis) was developed in Victorian England, but adapted from racket games that are much older.  Because of the limitations inherent to tennis–space to play, equipment, etc.–tennis was initially a game limited primarily to the moneyed class.  (In the United States, this meant the East Coast elite, although that changed fairly quickly.)

As befitting its Victorian roots, tennis players were expected to comport themselves in a certain manner.  Be a good winner and an even better loser.  Men wore white buttoned shirts and white trousers while women wore white dresses that covered the whole body and corsets underneath.  (Wimbledon still retains the all-white clothing rule although mercifully the type of clothing has changed.)  Rigorous honesty and unfairly gentility.  This was the standard until World War I, but who remembers Willie Renshaw and Laurie Doherty, Lottie Dodd and Maud Watson?

After World War I tennis’s image began to change, and it started with the sport’s first superstars Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen.  They popularized the sport, taking it out of the domain of the posh and bringing it to the masses.  Lenglen, who eschewed the corset in favor of flowing, sleeveless dresses that scandalously went down to only just below the knee (she was French), was responsible for Wimbledon being moved to its current location; the old location simply could not accommodate all the people who wanted to watch her play.  Both Lenglen and Tilden were temperamental prima donnas, but for the most part tennis players were still expected to be behave in the Victorian fashion.  For the most part, the players did behave themselves in exemplary fashion, and the sport remembers the dignity of the greats such as Budge, von Cramm, Gibson, Ashe, Seles, and pretty much every top Australian men’s player prior to Lleyton Hewitt.

I am not sure when the behavior change started exactly.  Tennis did not lack players who marched to a beat of a different drummer or who were difficult personalities (Pancho Gonzales for example), but by the 1970’s the Victorian image was gone, and players like Connors, McEnroe, and Nastase were as famous for their bad behavior as for their success.  Additionally, with the rise of feminism, Billie Jean King, and the Women’s Tennis Association, female tennis players improved the public perception of their game and their own competitiveness.

Arguing with the umpire and on-court temper tantrums have become the norm, and for better or for worse there is no going back.  There are still behavioral rule, but those rules are used judiciously, perhaps too much so.  (It’s a shame too, because I would love to see an end to the shrieking that has ruined women’s tennis.)  What exactly constitutes bad behavior is, I guess, in the eye of the beholder.  McEnroe was correctly thrown out of the Australian Open in 1990 for his behavior, but at the 1991 US Open, Jimmy Connors got away with calling the umpire “an abortion.”  Umpires and other officials need to be treated with respect.  They fact that players can get away with so much abuse toward them (not just in tennis), is one of the dark sides of sports.

Which brings us to the US Open Women’s final from two days ago.  Sam Stosur of Australia beat Serena Williams of the United States 6-2 6-3 to take the title.  Stosur became the first Australian woman to win the US Open title since Margaret Court in 1973 and the first Australian women to win any major title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980.  Australia, once a dynastic tennis powerhouse, has waited a long time for another women’s champion, although I doubt Stosur will join the pantheon alongside Court and Goolagong Cawley.

Unfortunately, Stosur’s day was marred by her opponent’s behavior.  Where Serena Williams walks, so too does controversy.  Although Serena’s dedication to the sport has long been questioned (especially during her acting career phase), when she is on her day, she is one of the game’s true legends.  But Serena is also the architect of her own unpopularity.  Her behavior, which involved accusing and berating the chair umpire, was nothing short of disgraceful.

Unfortunately, this was no aberration, and Serena has gotten in trouble before at the US Open when a call did not go her way.  Two years ago in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, Serena threatened a line judge who called a foot fault on her at a key moment.  Serena’s tantrum resulted in a point deduction on match point, a highly undignified way to lose.  Even beyond such major incidents as this, Serena wears ungracious behavior like a fur coat and then calls her critics haters.  Particularly galling are her post-match press conference remarks where she inevitably belittles her opponents (win or lose, Serena will claim that she wasn’t playing at her best.)  On one hand we want to see that kind of supreme self-confidence from top athletes; on the other hand, too much of it is tacky, particularly when combined with a complete lack of self-awareness, as is the case with Serena.

Criticizing Serena though is never easy because it opens one up charges of racism.  For years, I have read the weekly mailbag columns of Jon Wertheim, one of Sports Illustrated‘s two main tennis writers.  Whenever he criticizes one of the Williams sisters, there is inevitably a slate of angry e-mails accusing him of judging them differently because they are black.  Wertheim is no racist, nor does he hate the Williams sisters (he is quite complimentary of both of them), but race is such a polarizing issue, that there are those people who cannot separate criticism of a black athlete from criticism of an athlete who is black.  Obviously race is a major part of the Williams sisters’ story, and I would not deny that there have been racist incidents (see: Indian Wells), but that does not give Serena a free pass for her boorishness.*

The story of Venus and Serena Williams is probably the most remarkable in the sport’s history.  It has everything a great novelist would want: growing up in the ghetto, black girls in a white sport, a crazy tennis father, the unprecedented dominance of two sisters, tragedy, injury, apathy, illness, stardom, and the psychological vicissitudes they displayed when playing one another.  It’s just a shame that Serena want this story to have such an unlikeable protagonist.

Footnotes: 

* I have always preferred Venus to Serena, being an older sibling and all.  Despite a wobbly first impression at the start of her career (mostly due to her father), Venus has conducted herself with grace and dignity.  I was very sad to hear that Venus has Sjögren’s syndrome, and I wish her the best.  The fact that so many have expressed sadness about Venus shows that, like many of her predecessors, she has moved from controversial to beloved.

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