Tag Archives: tennis

Serena Williams: The Return to Indian Wells (Part I)

This post comes from, Bowling Green State University Sport Management Professor and Maxwell Media Watch faculty advisor, Dr. Nancy Spencer.

By Dr. Nancy Spencer

March 2, 2015

On March 13, 2001, I sat in front of my TV, eagerly awaiting the sixth match that Venus and Serena Williams were to play against one another in a professional tennis tournament. The tournament was at Indian Wells, a small affluent desert community in California that was home to many retirees from the entertainment world.

About five minutes before the match was to begin, an ESPN announcer reported that there would be no live match since Venus Williams had ‘just’ defaulted. The announcement was made in front of a packed stadium of angry fans that proceeded to boo loudly. They felt like they had been robbed.

Unlike in team sports, when a superstar fails to play on a given date, the game goes on. LeBron and Kyrie may not have played against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, but the Cleveland Cavaliers still played. There may have been different match-ups, and fans may have been disappointed that they did not get to see Kyrie and LeBron, but they still got to see a meaningful game. When someone defaults in tennis – especially in the semifinals or finals, a substitute can step in to play an exhibition match, but it is not a meaningful match.

Unfortunately, for the Williams sisters, Venus’ default coincided with published reports (albeit in the National Enquirer) that their father, Richard, may have fixed their most recent match-up in the semifinals of the 2000 Wimbledon. Venus won that match and advanced to win her first Wimbledon title. The report (in the National Enquirer) was enough to fuel speculation that perhaps Richard Williams had fixed this match. There has never been proof to substantiate that or any other allegation, even though Venus and Serena Williams have made it clear repeatedly that it was difficult for them to play one another (since they are sisters as well as best friends).

Two days later, Serena met Kim Clijsters in the finals at Indian Wells. She could not have anticipated the boisterous environment she would encounter. Even as she was introduced and again, when her father and Venus entered the stadium, fans booed vociferously.

In response, Richard raised his fist, evoking the symbolism displayed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Fans continued to boo Serena throughout the match, even when she hit winners and even at the end when she remarkably managed to come from behind to win in three sets. Later, Richard reported that he heard racist comments, including one fan who claimed that he was lucky it wasn’t 1975, or he would ‘skin him alive’ (Smith, 2001, p. 3C). The response from tournament director Charlie Pasarell was that those weren’t Indian Wells fans (Smith, 2001). That seemed a curious statement to make and certainly did not justify the unruly behavior in my book.

My immediate response to watching ‘tennis fans behaving badly’ was that racism in tennis was now visible for the whole world to see – except that this was Indian Wells, not the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, where the whole world would have been watching.

And this was before Twitter and social media would have quickly spread the news. In 2009, Serena’s autobiography was published, containing a chapter on ‘The fiery darts at Indian Wells.’ That was the first I learned Serena’s version of what happened in 2001 (in her own words) (Williams & Paisner, 2009). That was when I discovered that Venus had injured her knee during her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva.

On the morning of the semifinal, Venus checked in with the trainer, informing him that she didn’t think she would be able to play. What should have happened at that point was that an announcement of Venus’ withdrawal should have been made and another match should have been scheduled for the Stadium. But it wasn’t – for whatever reason. As a result, when Venus defaulted, it appeared that she made the call at the last minute and fans made the Williams’ sisters the scapegoats.

In her autobiography, Serena details the devastating impact of the fans’ behavior that she and Venus faced at Indian Wells in 2001. Because of that behavior, Venus and Serena determined not to return to Indian Wells since 2001… until this year… Serena is returning to Indian Wells.

Next week: Part II – Serena’s Return: How it Happened/What it Means

Mad Man At Courtside

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written Dr. Jacquelyn Cuneen, a retired Professor of Sport Management at Bowling Green State University. 

Viewers of the Emmy winning AMC series Mad Men are taken back to the 1960’s in America — an era of stringent social order when all individuals were branded by gender conformity. Even the most unattractive of males were able to swagger as if they were Frank Sinatra and even the brightest of females were expected to sashay as if they were Marilyn Monroe. Sport, of course, was the domain of males. Females were tolerated in certain “gender appropriate” activities (see Eleanor Metheny’s essay on Connotations of Movement in Sport), and women in some of those sports (e.g., golf, tennis, bowling) were starting to establish their place in athletics.

The Olympic Games provided the biggest stages for 1960’s athletes who happened to be female and some of the most visible athletes at both the summer and winter games were women from the former Soviet Bloc countries. The Soviet women were particularly dominant in track and field. They were highly trained, highly fit, very serious, and very muscular. Their appearances prompted the American media, particularly the print media, to focus more on the athletes’ bodies rather than their performances. Amid questions related to doping, chromosome testing, and sexuality, the Soviet athletes were chided for being too masculine. In other words, they were too good to be women. And, the collective Ministers of Sport from the Soviet countries were outraged over these insulting questions and accusations.

Fast-forward to half a century later when some of the best and most popular athletes in the world are skilled, strong, forceful, muscular women and the era of Mad Men is far behind — except perhaps in Russia, the principal country of the old Soviet Bloc. In October 2014, Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev appeared on his country’s late-night talk show Evening Urgant and, due either to unbelievable ignorance or a dim-witted attempt at comedy, referred to Venus and Serena Williams as The Williams brothers.

The Williams Brothers! Venus, who can walk a fashion runway to rival any Vogue model. Serena, so dazzling that she can walk on to the CBS Late Show set and render host David Letterman speechless. Brothers? What could prompt a coach to refer to such women as brothers? Could it be that, in his Mad Men mind, they are too good and too powerfully built to be women?

It is appalling that the Williams’ or any females who work to reach the top of their sport must hear such comments from their sports’ insiders. It is particularly disconcerting to hear such denigrating remarks from someone who has worked so closely with skilled women and ought to know their capabilities. A person such as Tarpischev, of all people, should know the success that comes to women who are accountable and committed to their sport and prepare themselves for excellence. He behaves like a mad man.

A final word to Shamil: Watch Mad Men and be happy you live in an era when you have accomplished women to coach. Then, get yourself off the talk show circuit, go back on court, leave social commentary to Gloria Steinem, leave comedy to Chelsea Handler, and start coaching better so some of your Russian players can come up to the Williams standard.


What’s So Funny About the “Williams Brothers?”

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written by Dr. Nancy Spencer Ph.D, a Sport Management Professor at Bowling Green State University.

On October 13, Shamil Tarpischev, head of the Russian Tennis Federation appeared on a Russian television show (Evening Urgant) with former player Elena Dementieva. During the interview, the host of the show asked Dementieva what it was like to play the Williams’ sisters. Before she could respond, Tarpischev interjected by calling them the ‘Williams’ brothers,’ and describing them as ‘scary.’ Merlisa Lawrence Corbett urged the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to respond to the derogatory comments. Several former players Martina Navratilova and Katrina Adams – both now members of the media – also tweeted their disapproval of Tarpischev’s remarks. Martina even called for the ouster of Tarpischev. By the end of the week, heads of both the USTA and WTA had responded to the derogatory comments.

This is clearly not the first time that sexist comments have been made about world-class female athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams or others. When former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo emerged on the tennis scene in 1999, WTA players Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis said it was like playing against a man. In 2013, after Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon Women’s Singles title, BBC announcer John Inverdale made sexist remarks, suggesting she needed to become a great tennis player since she would never be a ‘looker’ (like Maria Sharapova). And when Baylor University star Britney Griner led her team to the 2012 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship over Notre Dame, ND Coach Muffet McGraw said it was like playing against a guy, a statement she meant as a compliment.

In 1988, sport sociologist Mike Messner wrote about the dilemma facing women athletes who become so good that they are said to ‘play like men.’ Messner called it a “double-edged” sword. He explained that on one hand, it appears to be a compliment about an individual woman’s skills (indeed, Tarpischev later claimed that was what he meant). On the other hand, the implication is that because she is so good, perhaps she is not a ‘real woman’ after all.

By the end of last week, Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA announced that Tarpischev would be fined $25,000 (the maximum allowable) and suspended for a year. Allaster also sought to remove Tarpischev from his position as Chairman of the Board for the Kremlin Cup, a position he has held for 18 years. In announcing these sanctions, Allaster said that Tarpischev’s comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.” She described Venus and Serena Williams as “outstanding human beings, incredible sportswomen, and amazing role models who have done so much to inspire women and girls around the world.”

Meanwhile, Dave Haggerty, the President and CEO of the USTA called on Tarpischev to formally apologize to Venus and Serena. Less than a week after making the initial comments on Russian television, Shamil Tarpischev issued a letter of apology that is now posted on the WTA website. In it, he apologizes for the “insensitive remarks” which he understands “could be construed as discriminatory by the public.”

The USTA and WTA have not always been swift to speak out on behalf of the Williams sisters. When Richard Williams reported that he and his daughters faced racist epithets at Indian Wells in 2001, the tournament director Charlie Pasarell replied that ‘those weren’t Indian Wells people.’ To be fair, that incident occurred before Stacey Allaster or Dave Haggerty were in leadership positions with the WTA and USTA, respectively. In reporting on Serena Williams’ response to Allaster’s fine, the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg wrote that she “praised the swift and decisive action taken by the WTA.” If Serena can praise the actions of the WTA, that is good enough for me. Hopefully this incident and the swift responses of the WTA and USTA will serve to curb the thoughtless sexist (and racist) comments about female athletes at all levels.