Thursday, November 16, 2017
November 16, 2017: AthleteStudying: The Williams Sisters
[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On two factors that have entirely changed my perspective on the tennis superstars.
I have to start this post with full disclosure: for many years, indeed most of their long and hugely successful careers in professional tennis, the Williams Sisters would have been most likely to show up in this space as part of my annual post-Valentine’s non-favorites series. There were quite a few things that rubbed me the wrong way about Venus and Serena Williams, but I would highlight two in particular. One is not at all on them: their father Richard Williams, who had always seemed (and still I will admit largely seems) to me to embody the worst kind of overbearing and self-centered tennis/sports parent. And the other was much more fully about them, and especially Serena, who (I long felt) could never lose a tennis match and credit her opponent in any way; she always seemed to be blaming herself and her play, suggesting that if she just played the way she could, it would be impossible for any opponent to give her a challenge. Given Serena’s unrivaled career success, that might well be an accurate assessment, but it still felt at best petty and at worst downright disrespectful to so consistently (as I saw it) talk about her opponents and matches in that way. So even a couple years, I would have viewed the most recent Australian Open final between Venus and Serena as the worst thing that could happen in a women’s tennis tournament.
My perspective has entirely changed in the last couple years, however, and while I know that doesn’t and shouldn’t matter at all to the Williams Sisters, I do think that the two most central influences in shifting my point of view are interesting ones to AmericanStudy and are both relevant to this series on women in sports. The single most powerful influence has been the sections of Claudia Rankine’s poem Citizen (2015) dedicated both to narrating one particular controversial moment in Serena’s career and to portraying and analyzing perceptions of Serena’s identity (that New York Times Magazine piece by Rankine echoes and extends many of Citizen’s topics, if in a different genre of course) and her responses to them overall. Of course I had long recognized, when I took a step back from my personal feelings on Serena and the sisters, the crucial roles that both race and gender (in an intersectional combination) have always played in shaping our narratives of the Williams’. But it’s one thing to recognize something analytically, and another to feel it empathetically; and I have to admit that it was reading Rankine’s book that truly made it possible for me to emphathize with Serena (and Venus) and how such narratives and frames have affected (if in no way limited) them at each stage and moment. Perhaps I should have been able to do so without the book, but of course works of art can and do greatly amplify our capacity for empathy, and Rankine’s portrayal of Serena offered a wonderful case in point for me.
The other main factor in shifting my perspective is a bit more complicated to write about, and a lot more 21st century. To put it simply, many of the scholars and figures whom I follow on Twitter—many of them women of color, but also certainly folks in every conceivable ethnic and identity category—are huge fans of Serena and Venus, and would often during and around tournaments Tweet about what the Williams Sisters meant to them. I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter often fails to live up to this ideal, but at its heart one of the things it best represents is a chance to listen to other people, to hear and learn from their voices and perspectives with an immediacy and (in its own digital way) intimacy that’s not possible (or at least not the same) in any other medium with which I’m familiar. I can’t pretend that the first few times I saw such pro-Williams Tweets, I wasn’t more annoyed than anything else; but fortunately I continued to see them, and starting listening to and learning from them. I’m not looking for a pat on the back for that, as again I was doing both what Twitter should allow us to do and, for that matter, what any human being should do in conversation with others. Instead, I want to highlight this effect as both a model of what a site and space like Twitter can do and mean, and as a particularly good example of how these 21st century communities can, again at their best, help open us up to perspectives and voices that it might be otherwise harder for us to truly hear and be shaped by. Thanks to such perspectives, as well as to Rankine’s wonderful poem, I now am nothing but excited for the Williams Sisters to have one more (or another—who knows how many more there might be?) Grand Slam tournament battle.
Next AthleteStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?