The curious case of Serena Williams

It’s been all over the news, radio discussions, website forums and just about everywhere else. Serena Williams and her ‘meltdown’ has been everywhere but is that really what it was? I first heard about it on the radio just after it had happened and as someone who takes an interest in tennis (although I’m not an avid follower) it all sounded rather dramatic and exciting. After all, this is the undisputed leading female tennis player of the last twenty years and undoubtedly one of if not the finest player every to grace a court. And here she was in a major final throwing an almighty tantrum at the umpire after she was penalised for getting coaching then deducted first a point and then a game for showing anger in the form of smashing her racket and launching an accusatory tirade at the umpire. Stephen Nolan on Radio 5live was pretty unequivocal about it as he chaired a phone-in on the subject, simply pointing out her unacceptable behaviour and lambasting her attempts to turn the conversation about it towards sexism, equality and even racism. The subsequent furore over the rather tasteless cartoon in the Australian Herald Sun has only added to the intriguing debate.

To be honest, I’ve been on my own journey about it. Initially I have to say my reaction was to go with Nolan. In truth, the coaching rule was news to me so as far as I was concerned this was a legitimate penalisation which she massively overreacted to and was dealt with accordingly. At this point, I also rather shared Nolan’s view that I couldn’t figure out where women’s equality came into it. I really couldn’t see it – it smacked to me of someone playing the gender card in an issue where it wasn’t relevant. It seemed to me that whether the penalisation for coaching was correct or not (and given the coach admitted it, it would seem to be) the aggression and dissent was an overreaction and unnecessary and while certain allowances must be made for the heat of sporting combat, that doesn’t mean it can go unpunished. I wrestled with this as I listened to the majority of callers side with Nolan, although one or two put some arguments forward about Williams standing up for ‘what she believed in’.

I think at this point I have to say that I take great interest in issues around gender, sexism and equality and listen to many debates on the subject during my insomnia youtube marathons. I regularly read facebook posts from many of my friends in the music world on the subject and many of the things they are subjected to such as personal space invasion, patronising comments regarding how to use equipment and even indecent proposals at gigs or on social media (and that’s before the issue of female bands being turned down from festivals because ‘we’ve already got one female band this year’) make me realise that sexism is sadly alive and well. In truth, I also read plenty of posts where I believe a bit of determined outrage is going on and there are times when I think it can get out of hand but overwhelmingly I come down on this side: I am a firm believer that we, as men, need to be more inclined to look at the way we think and behave in regard to women rather than immediately coming down on the defensive side and saying ‘it’s not all of us’. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but the fact is even ‘good guys’ can say or do things in regard to our dealings with women that are wide of the mark. Our instinct should be to think about it and think if we can do better instead of immediately going into defensive mode.

So with that in mind, it almost troubled me that I couldn’t see the sexism! My instinct is not to dismiss it and I felt even more troubled when racism was also being suggested as a factor and I couldn’t see that either. There are plenty of instances where I believe that prejudice is looked for rather than actually present and this just seemed to be one of those. Nevertheless, it was on my mind over the next few days.

First things first I thought I’d better do a bit of research on this coaching rule as it was news to me as I said. It does appear it’s not implemented all that often so was this sexist against Williams? In other words does it happen to women considerably more than men? The answer is slightly complicated – men actually get far more violation warnings or docked points in tennis in general than women particularly when it comes to slamming down a racket or using bad language complaining to an official. The coaching one is more interesting – women have actually been penalised for coaching more times than men (152 times over the past 20 years compared to 87 for men). The reason isn’t clear for this so it could be that gender is a factor but the figures are not conclusive enough to be sure of this.

So far so inconclusive. Two more things that kept me with Mr Nolan: firstly, the umpire Ramos. He has a reputation as a strict, almost jobsworth type of umpire so implementing a rarely used violation doesn’t seem specific to Williams. Secondly and significantly, you can hardly blame him for penalising Williams for blatant racket abuse and strong dissent to the point of questioning the umpire’s integrity. The only thing one could say in defence of Williams is there is perhaps a little more of a track record of going with a non-official warning rather than straight to an official warning which is then followed by docked points and games. But all this still doesn’t alter the fact that whether the coaching violation rule was harsh or even wrong, Williams’ behaviour came across as unsporting and bad tempered and although it was slightly negated by her rightly urging the crowd not to boo during the presentation of the trophy to her opponent and to salute a worthy champion and not spoil her moment, it really did seem she had needlessly earned more penalisation and simply lost her cool.

One player has been mentioned many times in this debate – John McEnroe, a notoriously hotheaded player who seems to be almost revered for his passionate antics (although for balance it should also be pointed out he was criticised for it at the time). But note the words I used – ‘revered’ and most significantly ‘passionate’. Finally, I got a whiff of this sexism. McEnroe is ‘legendary’, ‘passionate’, ‘iconic’. Williams was being described as ‘hysterical’. That word is very significant – I have never once heard a man described as hysterical, not once, in any discussion about anything. But I tell you what, I’ve heard it used many times to describe a woman. It got me thinking about other areas too – if men rise to the top of an organisation they are ‘driven’. Women are ‘ruthless’. These are subtle but significant differences and a sign that we still expect men and women to behave a certain way. In my own field of music, men (and actually many women) are ok with female fingerpicking guitarists and singers, harpists, fiddlers. They’re not quite so sure about a blistering flatpicking guitarist or hard driving accompanists. Don’t believe me? Just ask how many female musicians of this type have been told they ‘play like a man’ and you might see what I mean. Williams has an incredibly strong physique, a fiery temper and a willingness to argue a case. Is it perhaps the case that many are uncomfortable with this because it doesn’t fit into the image of a female tennis player?

As indicated already, I don’t dispute that Williams deserved to be sanctioned for what she did (at least for the dissent anyway) and had it been a man I think he would have been dealt with the same way. But this is the crux of this piece – it is not what she did, how she was punished or even her attempt to frame it as sexism that prove sexism. I think she behaved badly and did not need to frame it as a sexism issue because at that point I do not believe it was. What implies sexism is the aftermath. For one thing, this happened a week ago and it is still being discussed in newspapers, magazines, radio shows, breakfast TV shows, the lot. A tennis player having a run-in with an umpire is nothing new, it happens all the time. Granted, this was a high profile match featuring a very high profile player but the fact that I had to spend quite a lot of time finding ANY reports (outside of actual match reports) of a male player ever behaving this way and struggled to do so speaks volumes because it happens enough, as was shown when I looked at the actual match reports!

And then of course there was that cartoon. I think caricaturing Williams as raging and jumping on her racket with a dummy on the floor was fair game as was the quite amusing speech bubble from umpire to her opponent ‘can’t you just let her win’. But to make the fairly dark skinned Osaka totally white with totally blonde hair and Williams a horribly stereotyped big-lipped  ‘angry black woman’ with ludicrously exaggerated body parts is disgraceful and indicative of the debate that has surrounded Williams for much of her career. If I didn’t know the context I would have no idea who it was a drawing of and it’s not as if the artist is incapable, simply that he has focused entirely on racial features (as well as whitewashing Osaka) and played that stereotype of ‘angry black woman’. It belongs in 1850.

I hope that like McEnroe, Williams is revered as an outstandingly brilliant tennis player and an iconic legend. But I also hope that when Williams does retire (or frankly before she retires would be better), this incident and only one or two other similar ones are barely even mentioned. Because they are, or should be, such an extraordinarily insignificant footnote in the story of a player who has defied all the odds and is quite simply a breathtaking sportswoman. With every respect to McEnroe who was undoubtedly a fine player, it is hard to imagine him being quite so iconic without ‘you cannot be serious’ and all that. Ask yourself this: if there had been a female player who exhibited such behaviour on a regular basis would she be remembered as ‘iconic’ or ‘hysterical’. You don’t have to be consciously sexist to be sexist.