The No. 1 tennis player in the world made her professional debut at age 14. It is impossible to quantify her impact on the game or to neatly sum up her accomplishments since then, but they include winning 23 grand slam titles, four Olympic gold medals, the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award (three times), and being named Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated. Uproar ensued over this last honor, bestowed upon Williams in 2015, because people felt the award should have actually gone to American Pharaoh—a racehorse.
That was just one of many dehumanizing slights Williams has endured throughout her 21-year career. This post could have been “A Timeline of All the Racist Dickheads Serena Williams Has Had to Stand Up To Over the Years”—unfortunately, no one has the time to compose such an exhaustive list. The latest insult came shortly after Williams announced that she and her fiance, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, are expecting their first child.
Imagine how tired Serena must be after 20-plus years of being a champion, fighter, and her own protector. The air must be rare up there on the high road.
At a news conference on Saturday to preview Romania's Fed Cup playoff against Great Britain, Ilie Nastase, captain of Romania’s team, was overheard saying of Williams’ unborn baby, "Let's see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?" This remark comes after an earlier interview with Romanian media in which he lobbed doping allegations at Serena, based on her physique.
For some reason, Nastase has not yet faced any retribution. The International Tennis Federation has “launched an investigation” into his comments—even though they have been widely reported, and he has doubled down in subsequent interviews. (Contrast this reaction with how he was quickly removed from the stands and suspended the same day for “unsportsmanlike conduct” after he cursed at the umpire and two other female players.) Consider that Nastase, a former world No. 1 in the 1970s, is kind of like a co-worker of Serena’s. And he is just one of many coworkers who have harassed her throughout her career. If Serena worked at a regular company, she could complain to human resources. In fact, she could sue for a hostile work environment, or discrimination—because her “employers” have allowed this abuse to continue for years.
Serena, ever graceful, responded to Nastase on Monday in a statement that ended with, “I humbly thank the ITF for any consideration given to all the facts in this case. They will have my full support.”
But when has the International Tennis Federation ever sent a clear message that it will not tolerate abuse toward its most popular player, one who has brought immeasurable attention to the game on a worldwide level? When has anyone actually been punished for mocking Serena? In her two decades of dominance, it’s hard to find an instance of any governing body ever offering Serena any concrete measure of protection or justice.
The Williams sisters decided to boycott Indian Wells in 2001 after onlookers relentlessly booed them, called them the n-word, and allegedly threatened their father’s life. Instead of trying to figure out how to protect or support the sisters, tournament director Steve Simon later told the New York Times, “No one player makes the difference between success and failure.” At the same tourney, fellow player Elena Dementieva accused the sisters’ father of fixing matches between his daughters; this only contributed to the hostility they endured. These are just a few examples of Williams’ peers exhibiting unchecked discriminatory behavior. It’d be one thing if all Serena had to worry about were trolls on the internet. But at any given match, in any given news conference or interview, her competitors and colleagues are likely to verbalize racist and sexist opinions regarding her—sometimes when she isn’t even playing.
The fortunate thing is, Williams was groomed for this. Richard Williams was criticized for his training methods, but he had the foresight to prepare Venus and Serena not just to win, but to endure criticism. He deliberately raised his daughters in a rough neighborhood, and he recruited people to taunt and yell at them while they practiced.
"There was no place in the world that was rougher than Compton," Richard Williams said to CNN. "The ghetto will make you rough, it'll make you tough, it'll make you strong. And so that's why I went to Compton with them."
Richard knew no one would come to his daughters’ defense—not even governing bodies like the World Tennis Association, United States Tennis Association, or ITF that are in place to ensure the safety, ethics, diversity, and inclusion of the game. It adds a whole other level of stress to your job when you have to power through constant disrespect in your workplace, while competing at the highest level.
Imagine how tired Serena must be after 20-plus years of being a champion, fighter, and her own protector. The air must be rare up there on the high road. But she shouldn’t have to walk it alone.