I was seated inside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open last week watching Serena Williams beat Madison Keys when I heard a man yelling out with all the righteous indignation he could muster.
“Serena, go back and eat some more mashed potatoes!”
I was momentarily stunned. I paused for a moment to process this hateful – and racist – outburst and then I searched the section to see if I could locate the culprit. I could not. I wasn’t even sure what I was planning to say even if I had spotted him, but I knew this: I was going to say something.
There was a time, not too long ago, when tennis fans – mostly Americans – would boo Serena even while she was playing foreign opponents.
Those days are largely over, I thought, but the hating of Serena, a formidable Black woman and tremendous athlete still seems to live on, even inside a stadium named for one of the greatest tennis players of all time – a Black man, Arthur Ashe.
I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are thrilled that Serena lost the U.S. Open to Italy’s Flavia Pennetta and in in doing so, surrendering her quest to grab hold of history by snagging four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.
I was rooting for Serena and I was crushed when she lost. My aunt, Jean Favors, an avid tennis fan for many years and one of the wisest people I know, was also cheering for Serena – as always – but she offered me some sobering advice when I called to express my disappointment with Serena’s unexpected defeat.
Michael,” she said with a mix of sympathy and resolve, “just let it go.”
Sensible words; but it was a hard pill to swallow. It was as if Serena – the world’s best tennis player – had to prove once again that she is the reigning queen of the sport. Journalists still try to compare her physique to that of an animal’s and she’s still—==— the target of ridicule and racist and sexist attacks. It’s unconscionable.
After Serena won the French Open earlier this year, it only took a matter of minutes before the haters took to social media. She was compared to an animal, likened to a man, and deemed frightening and horrifyingly unattractive.
One Twitter user wrote that Williams “looks like a gorilla and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla.”
I can’t recall these types of racist barbs being hurled at white tennis players.
So I cheered for Serena not just because I wanted to see her win the calendar Grand Slam, I was rooting for her because I wanted her to take her rightful place in history despite the bigots.
Serena is 44-3 at the U.S. Open since 2008, a mark which includes four dominant title wins, but yet, this week, I read a column in USA Today that claims that Serena is a sore loser.
When does the hating end?
Richard Williams, the brilliant Southern-born father/coach of the Williams sisters, told CNN that he moved his young family from Michigan to the city of Compton in the early 1980s, and the problem of racism in society has been a constant issue as his daughters have risen to prominence as tennis champions.
“I think it hasn’t changed that much at all (since I was a kid) — matter of fact it may have gotten worse, I don’t know … but I don’t think it’s changed that much,” he told CNN.
“Venus changed tennis altogether, period,” Richard said. “Venus was not accepted when she first came onto the scene. Not at all. She changed this sport. Venus and Serena made things so different, they raised the bar.”
CNN reminded readers that the entire Williams family took a now-infamous stand against racism when Serena was verbally abused during the final at Indian Wells in 2001. Neither Serena nor Venus played at the California tournament again until this year, when Serena returned for a match.
“The whole crowd turned against her,” Richard recalled to CNN about the ugly incident.
But, he added, “In order to be successful, you must prepare for the unexpected.”
In my view, Richard Williams doesn’t get enough credit for turning his daughters into global tennis sensations.
So as that one hateful utterance at the U.S. Open last week still rings in my head, I’m hopeful that the hatred toward Serena subsides for the sake of society.
But, ultimately, my ever-astute Aunt Jean is probably right: I just need to let it go.