My father explained that sportscasters—all white guys at the time—would never know what some of those groundbreaking baseball moments would mean for someone like him. And I can understand why a black man from Alabama wouldn’t want to hear a bunch of wealthy announcers babble about what they think about players like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Rod Carew.
I gained a new appreciation for his ritual of silencing sportscasters while watching the US Open — the two-week tennis tournament that this year featured exciting, down-to-earth matches, often played by people of color.
Tennis is the fourth most popular sport in the world and Frances Tiafoe, Carlos Alcaraz, Ons Jabeur, Nick Kyrgios, Caroline Garcia, Coco Gauff, Rajeev Ram and Taylor Townsend all make it to the later rounds, both in singles and doubles, has that Game finally started to resemble the entire planet.
This is great news and helps explain how I ended up muting the experts myself. Chris Evert and John McEnroe, some of the ESPN announcers covering Serena Williams’ second match at the Open, praised her comeback, in which she won after a period of flat-footed play. But then they let their tongues wag sideways when Evert started talking about everything Serena had learned, “about being a black woman in a white sport.”
I understand what Evert could have been to attempt because Serena and her sister Venus actually had to figure out how to survive (and eventually dominate) a sport that wasn’t meant for them. But it’s ironic that some people who are now praising the Williams sisters’ brains were less than accommodating when they were just breaking into tennis.
Some of us can’t forget McEnroe’s snide comments published in a British newspaper in 2000 when he complained about the Williams sisters’ attitude. McEnroe, who berated referees, smashed his bats and nicknamed “super brat‘ for his childish, red-faced tantrums, complaining that the Williams sisters weren’t being kind enough.
In the London Sunday Telegraph, McEnroe wrote that the sisters lacked respect and humility. “Would it kill you to greet people in the dressing room?” he asked.
Former black players like Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and Yannick Noah also faced headwinds, but the Williams sisters faced a special kind of hostility for doing things on their own terms. They’ve earned Grand Slam crowns and millions in awards, and it’s easy to forget that many who are now considered loyal fans have been vocal about their presence, physique, braids, fashion choices and playful crip walk in asked question Dancing in the square.
But let’s not pretend it’s always been like this. To fully celebrate their careers, one must acknowledge and understand the racism and condemnation they faced simply for being different.
So what I’d like to hear from commenters is not to think about what Serena learned as a black woman in a “white sport,” but think about what you learned as more colored players entered this game’s pantheon. It should be a lot. We see different styles of tennis, different paths to greatness and diverse audiences of fans. What does all this teach us?
The clear answer is: diversity is good for tennis. The audience for the first rounds of the tournament shattered recordspartly because of Serena’s farewell matchups, but also because of the sizzling play of the top seeds and the wide range of up-and-coming talent.
I was traveling on Friday, so I watched the men’s semi-final match between Alcaraz and Tiafoe in a crowded hotel bar. Alcaraz is a 19-year-old phenomenon from Spain. Tiafoe, 24, is the son of lifelong Sierra Leonean immigrants childhood slept at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., where his father worked as a janitor. Sometimes he stayed there because his mother worked nights in a hospital. came out of necessity something special.
I’m not sure my dad would have approved of me watching tennis in a Boston bar, but I had to smile when I realized I was following his old ritual. The sound was off. All that could be heard was the chatter of a group gathered in front of the television. The comment was loud. gasping. Roar. High fives – and in the end (Alcaraz won in a grueling five-hour, five-set match), a few tears.
No wonder. We’ve all been concerned with the future of tennis.