The power that comes with being one of the world’s few black female sporting icons is immense. Granted that has not always been the case, and to get to that point you will have to fight and overcome all sorts of adversity, but in this day and age, once you have arrived, you are untouchable.
Take this equation to the United States — where President Donald Trump’s administration has wrongly made issues of race and sex even more sensitive — then, embody that battle in Serena Williams, a home-grown all-American hero, and you will struggle to find a voice not in her favour, especially in New York.
That is quite a tide to face as an umpire, and quite a position to wield as a player; someone who is able to summon a wall of support around her when it counts, in a home event that may as well be her own title tournament, having won it six times.
The trick to power, however, is not to use and abuse it for your own means, even when it has gone to your head, even when you have lost your rag, and even when those around you are too scared to tell you when you’re wrong.
With Serena a set down to Naomi Osaka in last Saturday’s US Open Final, she received a warning after it appeared her coach was giving instructions from the stands. This sparked a reaction that later saw her penalised a point for smashing her racket, then docked a game for verbal abuse, after calling umpire Carlos Ramos a liar and a thief, arguing that she was not a cheat, before telling him he would never officiate at her games again.
That comment alone tells you who really runs the sport, and it’s not the organisers or the officials who had to come on court and appease her.
To top it off, in the post-match conference, she skirted around the real topic of her own behaviour with the view that if this had been a men’s game, her initial infraction would have been overlooked. Bam! The discourse was shifted away from her and onto something else; and the umpire, who was simply going by the rule-book, was shoved under the bus, because if Serena says it is sexism, then it’s most definitely sexism.
Even if it was sexist, a player of her standing, aged 36 with 23 Grand Slams, should have acted with more grace and tackled her objections higher up and in private. After all, the loss in reputation now suffered is far more damaging than failing to pick up yet another Grand Slam.
This was nothing to do with sexism or standing up for women’s rights. This was about losing and struggling to come to terms with her waning powers against a younger opponent. She failed in the graceful handover to the next generation and instead rained all over Osaka’s parade. To have twisted it all to become an issue of sexism devalues genuine cases of injustice and shows an abuse of power in her role as an icon who is able to sway and affect public opinion — something she would be great at if she fought justly for it.
It doesn’t help that her sycophantic celebrity friends, who also play a part in forging general consensus, blindly stuck by her after her outburst, like Billie Jean King and Lewis Hamilton, who both tweeted their fawning support for her ‘double standards’ argument. This only enforces her ego and false stand at a time when she should be swallowing her pride and considering an apology to Ramos. And yes, John McEnroe was just as bad, but if you look back, he was fined and vilified, it’s only now that we can laugh at it in hindsight.
While it is essential to have icons like Serena, who defend rights and break down barriers, it doesn’t make you a sexist or even a racist to sometimes disagree with them when they go beyond into bully territory.
Serena has fought against so much to get this far. That is true, and it is amazing, but there comes a point where not everything is an affront to you and what you stand for, but rather just the rules of a game by which everyone has to play. Perhaps some of those so quick to leap to her defence were too concerned with how voicing any opinion otherwise would be received, and that’s simply a symptom of these highly sensitive times, and of who she is within that. It is OK to have these meltdowns and even swing your status around sometimes, provided you recognise where you went wrong and apologise for your actions afterwards. After all, we are all only human. It is just a shame she hasn’t done that yet.
Having said that, don’t hate the player, hate the game. The reason Serena has made it this far is because she has fought against the world and will do anything to win — hurting like death if she can’t achieve that.
Winners are not nice people, and it is that fear of failure that drives them to succeed. You can’t simply switch that off. The best winners make awful losers, and examples of grace and sportsmanship are so regaled because they are so rare.
Expectation on Serena to be this role model and bastion of classiness must also be a massive burden. To her, she’s just a tennis player, but to us, she represents so much more, on a scale and in a time that even if she played for another 100 years she wouldn’t possibly be able to fathom.