Written by The Spaced Invader
All-time great tennis player Serena Williams mounted a third round comeback that would have otherwise seen her ousted from the Wimbledon Championship, one of tennis’ four annual grand slams. It wasn’t really a big deal that Williams came back after staring down elimination; she’s done so numerous times in her career, enough times that she’s established herself as a player who is never under any circumstances counted out of a match until it is over. The strange thing about this comeback is that she was booed by the crowd at Wimbledon during it. Wimbledon fans, and tennis around the world in general, have never warmed to Willliams and that’s a shame because they’re neglecting to appreciate a woman who is might be the most dominant professional athlete of her sport, male or female. Thankfully, Williams had the presence of mind to turn to the booing crowd, wag a finger at them and say, “Don’t try me.” Of course she went on to win the match, presumably on purpose. What Williams has ever done to make the fans at Wimbledon so unaccepting of her I really don’t know, but let’s take an over-examined look at why this is the case.
If we flip over to the men’s side of tennis, we have the still-active and all-time leader in Men’s Grand Slam Titles in Roger Federer. He is beloved wherever he plays tennis, especially so at Wimbledon, where he recently finished as runner up. He can seemingly do no wrong to the fans there. He could probably tell the Queen to stuff it and still be applauded as a gentleman. Federer is the darling of the tennis world and has been for several years, even if he hasn’t won a major title in some time now. There are some knocks on Federer though. Mainly that he won most of his titles between 2004-2008 (13 of his 17 titles), an era that is historically looked upon as the weakest in men’s tennis. The other knock on Federer is that he wasn’t able to beat the best player of his own era, Rafael Nadal (Nadal holds a 23-10 advantage against Federer). Still, Federer’s career was/is successful and dominant and it isn’t as though he could pick his competition, so you really can’t begrudge the fact that he won a bunch of majors against relatively weak fields. And nobody really does because he is loved by all, especially the British.
Back to Williams, the best woman to play tennis ever (going strictly by Majors she is second in the Open Era only to Steffi Graf) and you have the anti-Federer, the tennis player who no matter her success nor her attitude has ever been welcomed by the fans at Wimbledon. Just like Federer, Williams finished competing Wimbledon a few weeks back, only the won the championship and received the equivalent of a begrudgingly polite clap for doing so. In that polite-rude disposition the British escel at, the fans at Wimbledon made sure Williams knew they were less than thrilled that she just won Wimbledon. Again.
Like Federer, Williams has faced criticism that she has played in a relatively weak era so her Major Titles are not that impressive. Unlike Federer, that argument doesn’t hold as much water. Federer won the bulk of his titles in a four-year span (2004-2008), picking up another handful between 2008-2010 to bring his career total to 17 Major Titles, or Slams. 2008 marks the year Nadal won his first title outside of the French Open, beating Federer in the Wimbledon Finals that year in what might be among the five best men’s tennis matches ever played. From 2008 onward Nadal and Novak Djokovic have split the lion’s share of Slam Titles between each other, with Novak now climbing the ranks on the injury-plagued Nadal. During the four years Federer ruled tennis, to give you perspective on the level of competition he was facing, Andy Roddick was the #2 player in the world.
Compare Federer’s success to Williams and the major statistic that stands out, besides number of Majors won, is that Williams won her first title in 1999 and is still winning titles on a regular basis in 2015. That’s 16 years of tennis against the best the women have had to offer Williams. There have been times when the women’s side of the bracket was weak and Williams won some Majors against opponents you’d never heard of and would never heard from again, but there hasn’t been 16 years of that. In fact, Williams has taken on some of the best women’s tennis players to play the game, including her sister, Venus. Add to Williams’ longevity her personal and professional misfortune, some of which would bad enough that even the crowd at Wimbledon wouldn’t fault her for had she decided to retire, and you not only have the most dominating physical women’s player on the court, but likely one of the most mentally resilient in all of sports, in a sport considered to be the most mentally demanding of professional sports.
So why does the Wimbledon crowd love Federer, yet hold disdain for Williams? I really am not sure. One possibility is race, but to be honest I don’t think that has much to do with it. I won’t ignore it completely as athletes of color have historically incurred hatred and scorn for no other reason than that they are of color. In the case of Wimbledon, one of the darlings on the women’s side is Serena’s sister Venus, which suggests that race is not the motivating factor in the crowd’s manner toward Serena Wiliams. Even to this day where Venus is a perennial early exit, she is also a crown princess and basically the women’s equivalent of Roger Federer when she steps onto the court at Wimbledon. A more convincing reason that Wimbledon warms to Venus as they do is that unlike Serena she carries herself with grace, modesty and elegance; some unwritten way of being they expect from the players who step on the court, whether they continue their winning ways or not.
This is our first clue about the psyche of Wimbledon crowds; that you don’t have to continue to be a champion to be embraced and be a darling, even if they’d rather you did. So why all the vitriol towards Serena? While she isn’t as elegant as her sister and not as forthcoming to speak with the media she hasn’t committed any great atrocities that I am aware. In fact, she had a rather fun exchange with the media back in 2009 when she cracked a joke about the WTA rankings system:
The joke is very inside baseball, so if you don’t follow tennis it helps to know that Danira Safina was ranked the #1 Women’s Player by entering a whole bunch of minor tournaments against little to no competition and winning them. The joke wasn’t about Safina, but the flaws that award Safina a #1 World Ranking. The fans saw this as distasteful, but even the British media was quick to stand up for Williams, something they generally haven’t done. In this case, I think Williams being playful, having fun and opening up to the media worked in her favor. It was nice to see and the media reciprocated. But the fans. Those darned fans just wouldn’t let Williams win this round. Their hearts and minds had been made up long ago and they weren’t willing to change. That’s a shame too, as prior to 2009, Williams suffered through exhausting personal and professional ordeals only to return to the dominant player she had been in the past.
Back in 2003 Williams’ sister and assistant, Yetunde, was shot and killed as part of a drive-by shooting. Then to start off her 2004 season Williams tore her quadriceps tendon in her knee which required surgery and kept Williams out for eight months, only to suffer another injury when she did return. By 2006, with Venus Williams struggling and Serena hardly playing much of the tennis media believed the Williams’ era of dominance was over. Venus went on to win Wimbledon in 2007 and 2008, and Serena would win the title in 2009, playing the final against Venus.
The Australian Open is the first major of the tennis season and in 2007, after illness and more injury, an unranked, out of shape and overweight Serena Williams showed up for the Australian Open. Upon her arrival Williams was approached by Nike officials, one of her sponsors, and was told that if she did not put in a satisfying performance that they would cut ties with her. Williams went on to win the title. Her career over the next three years was mercurial, then almost fatal. She’d win a major her and there, but was not a constant threat as she had been prior to 2004. After Australia, Williams would cut open her foot in a bizarre incident at a restaurant, rendering her unable to play tennis. Later that year she was rushed into emergency surgery for a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and hematoma.
After that series of events, Williams found yet another way to make it back onto the tennis court and when she showed up at Wimbledon did not receive a warm embrace as one might suspect. It appeared that not even a comeback from nearly dying was enough to win over the Wimbledon crowd. Possibly because all threw those years she still managed to win Majors, even when she had no business doing so, like Australia in 2007. She never let herself fall into the category of the underdog, a category sports fans in general embrace universally. And that might be part of the problem. All the comebacks she made didn’t seem like comebacks because when she was healthy enough, even barely so, she found a way to play and found a way to win.
She's also had incidents of yelling at court officials, which could explain why fans find her problematic, but that is something every professional tennis player is guilty of committing, and she's never done anything overtly awful that can explain why fans in general and especially fans at Wimbledon have never embraced Williams. It really is a puzzle. She's even taken heat that she isn't built like a typical woman, but rather more like a man, thus giving her an unfair biological advantage. I'm serious. Fans and media have both made this distasteful critique. Please take a look at this picture and tell me what of it makes you think of Serena as manly:
The only explanation I can think of as to why she isn't endeared in tennis is that she is not sweet. Nothing about her is sweet or cute or elegant. Her tennis game is tough, relentless, strong, mean and unforgiving; not your typical ladylike traits. Certainly not in a country once ruled by Margaret Thatcher. Take a look at the darlings of Wimbledon today. Maria Sharapova: Tall, blond, attractive. Venus Williams: Tall, elegant, attractive. Victoria Azaranka: Tall, blond, cute. Petra Kvitova: Tall, blond, cut. There's a theme emerging here beyond "women who are not Serena Williams."
Also, none of the women, not even Serena's sister, Venus, is known for having such a punishing style of play. To watch most women's tennis matches you see longer rallies (than compared to men) and a less aggressive style of play, meaning fewer approaches to the net, fewer aces. With a Serena Williams tennis match you watch something of a metaphorical murdering of a human being through a tennis match, and murderers don't own candy stores.
Maybe that's the problem. Serena is too good and it hurts to watch and embarrass her opponent. And her continual refusal to be the underdog, no matter what she's going through in or off the court doesn’t help win the fan’s embrace. And right now, on the court, she holds titles for the last four Grand Slams played. If she wins the US Open next month in Flushing, New York, she will be the first female since Stefi Graf in 1988 to hold a calender year Slam. And the best the Brits can do as she won Wimbledon and continued her bid for the Calendar Slam is to clap out of forced politeness.
I hope Williams wins the US Open and completes the Slam. Even though the US Open is the sight of her worst meltdown, where she berated a chair umpire, and not so unjustly, the US Open is the one place the fans always welcome her. It is also the wildest, hardest tennis tournament of the year. And unlike Wimbledon there is no silly dress code to abide by, nor is there an unwritten set of rules players ought to comply by. If you win at Wimbledon and do anything but nod graciously you'll be seen as disrespectful. If you win the US Open and horse ride your tennis racket around the court you will be applauded. The fans don't care how you play there, so long as you play hard and play to win. They want to see the best do their best, not to be polite to each other until after the match. The whole tournament is a party. It's the last chance for players to win a Slam during the season, but it's also the last chance for them to have fun doing so. Take Novak Djokovic. He has a similar reception at Wimbledon as Serena, but after his third championship there things seem to be changing for him. A few years back Novak put on an exhibition for the fans in Flushing where he emulated other players style of play. It was silly, stupid and fun. Not only did the crowd love it, but his peers did as well; even Roger Federer, with whom Novak had the silliest parody for. The New York crowd is unlike the Wimbledon crowd. They like fun and they like they're athletes to have fun. They understand that for the fan sports are entertainment and for a few weeks they let the athletes embrace that side of things as well.
I can't wait for Serena to step on the court at Flushing. I hope she wins there, because it'll be to a loud, raucous, fun crown that loves Serena; a crowd that has eschewed the false upper-middle-class ideas of manners in favor of entertainment, which is what sports is to the observer. The US Open crowd has seen Serena Williams many times over the years and taken Serena for who she is. Sometimes they don't like her so much, as seen in 2009 when she had a meltdown in her match against Kim Clijsters, but they've always been honest with her and they've always embraced her, even in those moments they maybe didn't like her so much.
Now Williams has a chance to do something the tennis world hasn't seen since the 1980's and thank God that thing isn't happening at Wimbledon where she would have to adhere to a dress code and bat her eyes and bow if she won, but in Queens, New York, wearing whatever damn outfit she pleases and celebrating on the court however she damn well pleases, with a crowd that will not politely clap but instead go absolutely bonkers because she's earned that celebration and the fans will give it to her and it would be a shame not to see it happen, or worse yet, to see it happen at Wimbledon. Thank God the calendar doesn't allow for that possibility.