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Serena Redux: On the US Open, Race, Gender + Public Health

Serena Redux

by Assistant Professor Tina Sacks

Originally published on Medium on September 11, 2018. Photo by The Associated Press. 

By now, much has been written about the Serena Williams-Naomi Osaka-Carlos Ramos fiasco at the 2018 US Open. The debate has fallen along expected contours with white feminists and many male tennis players (see Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic), coming to Williams’ defense while more mainstream media outlets have lambasted Williams for “breaking the rules” (see the racist depiction of Serena in this cartoon; Martina Navratilova’s op-ed in the NYT; etc.) 

However, as a former NCAA Division 1 tennis player and current Black woman, I feel compelled to write about the debacle from a different point of view. What happened to Serena, and by extension to Naomi Osaka, was not only about breaking a racquet and incurring a significant penalty that ultimately cost Serena the match and possibly her standing in the halcyon of professional sport. Rather it was about Serena’s long history of disrespect at the hands of the game she has almost singlehandedly remade and reinvigorated. Serena’s treatment by dominant powers of her sport may also explain the way she was treated one year ago when she almost became another casualty of the United States’ Black maternal mortality crisis.

Serena’s treatment by dominant powers of her sport may also explain the way she was treated one year ago when she almost became another casualty of the United States’ Black maternal mortality crisis.

Ultimately, Serena, whose very real vulnerability, pain, and excellence are breathtakingly beautiful to watch, is a metaphor for every Black woman: she excels under duress; toils and fights and picks herself up by the bootstraps; and is an inspiration for activism on behalf of others. But in the end for all her stellar accomplishments, Carlos Ramos reminded her not to be such an uppity Negress.

That Serena felt she could call out the obvious and overwhelming sexism of the moment is telling not for what she said but for what she could not say. What happened to her and Naomi Osaka is as much about racism as it is about sexism. It is about the particularly virulent form of disgust reserved for Black women.

While many pundits have deftly noted that a game penalty would never have been levied against a male player like Andy Roddick or Andre Agassi, they fail to acknowledge that what happened to Serena could not have happened to Maria Sharapova, the blond Russian who has always been cast as Serena’s nemesis despite not having the tennis chops to serve as her rightful foil. No, what happened to Serena occurred in the much larger context of misogynoir: or anti-Black sexism.

For example, Serena is the most drug-tested athlete on either the men’s or women’s professional tour. She has repeatedly been subjected to taunts about her body (see Russian tennis federation official calling her and her sister the Williams brothers; and French tennis federation head saying Serena’s outfit disrespected the game); accusations of match throwing and outright racial epithets (see the Indian Wells saga).

All of Serena’s monumental accomplishments have always been subjected to extra scrutiny. She has endured the outrageous claims that she somehow cheated her way to the top. Like most Black people, she has had to be twice as good and on Saturday night she sharply admonished Ramos for attacking her character. Still the umpire’s suggestion that she cheated was not an isolated incident. Serena has lived under this microscope since she was a teenager and she has excelled in spite of it.

But watching her profound frustration play out on a Saturday evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium, I could not help but think about her fighting for her life after delivering her daughter just last year. Serena’s emergency c-section, pulmonary embolism, hematoma and multiple post-partum surgeries have been documented elsewhere. As Serena tells it, she knew she was having a pulmonary embolism and told the healthcare staff she needed a blood thinner immediately. She did not receive the diagnostic test or the medication she requested and was later told it was because the nurses thought she was just loopy from pain medication. But in spite of the fact that Serena is a larger than life icon, she is still just a Black woman. Her protestations about the treatment she needed did not matter because just like other Black women she is not a credible witness to her own life; she is definitely not allowed to be angry, and she is certainly not given any forbearance. On the tennis court she is not allowed to break an inanimate tennis racquet and in the hospital she is not allowed to “know” she was having a life threatening health emergency.

On the tennis court she is not allowed to break an inanimate tennis racquet and in the hospital she is not allowed to “know” she was having a life threatening health emergency.

In addition to being a former collegiate tennis player and current Black woman, I am also a social scientist who studies the implications of race and gender discrimination on Black women’s health. We know that the day-to-day slights Black people endure are bad for our health and result in shorter life expectancy and poorer health outcomes (see the work of public health researchers David R. Williams; Amani Nuru-Jeter; Nancy Krieger; etc.)

And, we know that being middle class, or in Serena’s case an international superstar, does not protect Black people from this fate. If being Serena cannot protect you, then what chance do workaday Black women have? In fact, we know that the implications of this type of stress is an enormous health burden causing physiological wear and tear that may ultimately cost Black women their lives.

What happened to Serena on Saturday was about much more than just that one evening. It was about a lifetime of cuts that pushed her to demand an apology for an arbitrary penalty that may cost her a place in the record books. Given everything Serena has done for tennis and sport in general, she deserves that apology. But more than anything she has earned a certain freedom that should come simply by being human. Ultimately, Serena, Naomi, and all of us deserve this levity. We are all still waiting to exhale.