A top-ranked tennis player in a moment of rage cursed out a judge and shocked the world, headlining every sports and news program from ESPN to MSNBC. Meanwhile, another champion tennis player hurled expletives at a judge and the media barely yawned. While the tennis world still reels from Serena Williams’s f-bomb-laced tirade against a line judge on September 12, the “classy” Roger Federer pulled a similar tantrum two days later and didn’t get half as much coverage.
In US Open finals on September 14, Federer lost in five sets to the previously unheralded Juan Martín del Potro. In a tense third set, after a challenge by del Potro, Federer became infuriated with the line judge. After the judge told Federer to settle down, he said, “Don’t tell me to be quiet, OK? I don’t give a [expletive] what [del Potro] said, OK?” The 6-foot-6 power-serving Argentinean frustrated Federer throughout, and the favored player lost his famous cool. But after the match, there were no press conference apologies from Federer. And there were no calls for him to be suspended, fined or sanctioned. This despite the fact that his profanity was directed toward del Potro, a serious breach in tennis etiquette.
Williams without question lost control as well. After being called for a critical foot fault in her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters, she said to the line judge, “If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat.” The foot fault was a terrible call, and it cost Williams the match. After her rant, she was given a point penalty, and the match was effectively over as Clijsters looked on in a state of bewilderment. It’s worth mentioning that the call by the line judge was the equivalent of calling a technical foul in Game 7 of the NBA finals with the score tied in the closing seconds.
The behavior of Federer and Williams in these matches are examples of bad sportsmanship at its worst. But the double standard is enough to make you want to swallow your tennis ball. When Williams lost it on the court, she later apologized and admitted idolizing tennis’s infamous enfant terrible John McEnroe. McEnroe, now an announcer on CBS, responded, “I guess she idolized me for the wrong reasons, apparently. I feel like I’m on the hot seat now…. I can’t defend the indefensible.” His co-anchor, Mary Carillo, was even harsher, saying, Williams “could have won the Oscar” for her calm performance at the press conference after the match.
On September 13 on ESPN2, Carillo called for Williams’s suspension, saying, “If you care about the integrity of your sport, you throw somebody out of the game for a while.” Later, she called Williams’s $10,500 fine a “joke” and an “embarrassment.” By contrast, when Federer cursed, CBS broadcaster Dick Enberg drew a distinction that it was not “venomous.”
The question is not whether Williams was right or Federer was wrong. They were both wrong. The question is whether hypocrisy is acceptable. The double standard is obvious if we perform the gender flip test: if Williams were a man, would her behavior have been met with similar outrage?
To ask the question is to answer it: from McEnroe to Jimmy Connors, male players who blow their tops are part of tennis lore. McEnroe has repeatedly made calls for current pros to not be “robots” and have the “passion” he displayed. But in the country-club white-skirt-and-ponytail world of women’s tennis, different behavior is expected. Williams, to put it mildly, doesn’t wear white. She is the person who introduced the “cat suit” to the tennis court. Her physical dominance is heretical to demure expectations that still permeate the sport.
When you couple gender expectations with racial ones, the inconsistency is no longer just obvious, it’s glaring. If Williams were a petite blonde, like 17-year-old American Melanie Oudin, and was called for a match-ending foot-fault-cum-disqualification, the US Open crowd would have turned Arthur Ashe Stadium into Attica. But Williams was booed throughout the match against Clijsters; and when her outburst began, the booing intensified. The next day when she played doubles with her sister Venus, Serena Williams was repeatedly heckled. Her “Americanness” at the US Open was in open question in the way a white player’s cultural heritage never would be. Ironically, her most infamous match against Clijsters, as all tennis fans know, was at Indian Wells in 2001 where she was subjected to repeated racial taunts and slurs. She has boycotted Indian Wells ever since and has said she will continue to do so, even though she has been threatened with fines and sanctions.
The Williams sisters’ ascendance from Compton to queens of the tennis world has been well documented and earned them millions of dollars plus fans around the world. But it has also gained them tons of detractors, from the stands to the blogosphere. This doesn’t excuse Serena Williams’s conduct, and it’s not an attempt to “play the race card”; it’s just a fact. When it comes to conquering race and gender in tennis, we are nowhere near match point.