American Culture

Serena Williams, world champion lout

It’s Wimbledon time, time for the Williams sisters to once again demonstrate that they are the greatest American players of their generation, and perhaps the best ever, and since it’s a Grand Slam, it’s also time for Serena to say something stupid.

This time she implied that although the Steubenville rape victim didn’t deserve it, maybe she did, sorta.

The Williams sisters should be easy to love. They’re fabulous athletes who’ve changed the way tennis is played. Between them they’ve won 96 titles. Both have been number one in the world numerous times. They have a great rags-to-riches story, rising from the decidedly un-country club like Compton to the top of the tennis world. When they were growing up, their father actually took them out of national tournaments so they could concentrate on schoolwork. How rare is that in tennis, a sport particularly prone to insane-parent-syndrome?

Serena should be especially lovable. She’s beautiful with a radiant smile. She’s engaging, with a goofy, eye-popping sense of fashion that gleefully ignores the dimensions of her body.  Indeed, she should be a role model that shows full-figured girls they don’t have to look like a ten year old boy to be successful in sports. She’s won 31 Grand Slam titles, which puts her eighth all time and  more or less fourth in the modern era. She’s got four Olympic medals. She’s been number one six times.

When she’s on, her tennis is absolutely transcendent, as she doesn’t win as much as she obliterates opponents. Yesterday she won 6-1 and 6-3, and apologized for dropping that game in the second set, claiming she was rusty from practicing too much on clay. In a time when American tennis has been decidedly mediocre and the American men especially so, Serena and her sister Venus have single-handedly (or double-handedly) given American fans someone to root for.

But Serena’s just too hard to love. She’s notoriously crabby, as detailed by numerous competitors. She’s surly and prone to make nasty comments. She’s physically threatened officials and competitors not once, but twice, and now she’s shown herself to be a petty bigot with the Steubenville comments. Even by the not very high standards of tennis etiquette, think Connors and McEnroe, Serena is a nasty piece of work.

So instead of dancing in the living room when she unleashes another jaw dropping serve, we nod politely, acknowledging her greatness rather than celebrating it. Her defenders argue that racism is endemic to tennis and that much of what we hear about Serena must be viewed through that lens. Maybe, but that argument is less than compelling for a young woman who’s won more money than any other in history ($40 million,) has a big contract with Nike, and lives in swanky places in West Palm Beach and Paris. Anyway, other African-American (and African-French) players don’t seem to have this problem.

The truth is that Serena Williams, like many celebrities, is a lout, a boor—a churlish, rude or unmannerly person. Perhaps it is because the uber-famous are coddled so much that they never learn the rudiments of manners. I once bumped into Steffi Graf in the Sonesta in Miami, or to be more correct, I bumped into her phalanx. She walked through the lobby of one of the most exclusive hotels in town literally surrounded by coaches and bodyguards who shoved the rest of us aside so she wouldn’t have to break stride. It’s hard to imagine how she’d learn much about normal life passing through life in that cocoon.

Perhaps it is because many people are louts, but most don’t have microphones in their faces continuously, just waiting for a little pearl of stupidity to drop. That is, maybe celebrities are no loutier than the rest of us, but we just don’t get caught at it.

She’s not alone. Tiger is a lout. Roger Clemens is a lout. Barry Bonds is a lout. Matt Birk is a lout. (Matt is the moronic football player who just declined a White House visit because he was incensed over something President Obama said, although he didn’t actually say it.) Kanye is a lout. Mel is a lout. Paula is—well Paula is something else.  It’s a long, long list.

The real takeaway from the story is that we should probably just pay attention to Serena’s tennis, and ignore her views on the world, but that’s not easy. It’s not easy because we fans automatically identify with celebrities as people and because the celebrities’ marketing machines—post match interviews, commercials, PR, etc, encourage us to get to know them personally. Sadly, when we do, we often find ourselves disappointed.

Obviously, Serena isn’t going to change, so perhaps we should. When Serena opens her mouth and something nasty comes out, we should no longer be surprised.

4 replies »

  1. We have a local radio talk-show host who was an all-American at a big-time football university, played in the NFL and played professional soccer in Europe. Clearly he is not in Serena’s league (after all he is a radio talk-show host) but he was in a world where he got to see that level of athlete “up close and personal”. He makes the argument that the truly elite athletes, the Jordans, Armstrongs, Clements, Williams, Becks, Woods, etc., etc., etc., are cut from a different swath from even the professional athletes. Fitzgerald made the argument that “the rich are different” and the host makes the argument that the elite are different. And viewed from the vantage of we mere mortals they are all total jerks. There are anecdotes galore about all of them exhibiting the jerk traits that lead to your observations.

    Years ago, Charles Barkley took the stance that he is (was) not a role model. He was a basketball player and if you put him on some other pedestal you did so at your own risk. For years I resisted that point of view. After all, the fans got him all those millions of dollars so surely he owed something to the fan base. He was right; I was wrong.

    These people have unimaginable talent and push themselves to develop that talent beyond what most people believe is possible and reward us with fabulous, almost inhuman athletic performances. And for some reason that is not enough. We think they should be model spouses, parents, experts on every subject, model citizens, political gurus, social saints, etc. What’s that about? When do they have time to learn or develop any of those skills or traits. They have been dedicated to their specific sports 100% of the time since they were children. And those that make it to Serena’s level move into a cocoon that Otherwise describes that very few people ever experience or can even imagine.

    It took me years but I have arrived at the point where I have learned to just enjoy the athletic performance. To expect that excellence to spill into other aspects of their lives is unfair to both the fan and the athlete. Enjoy the performance. Occasionally you may get an Ali or Nolan but for God’s sake do not expect it. Eat your hot dog and be marveled … that is enough.

    • Yeah, that’s logical, but unrealistic. We have many sports channels, websites, etc, etc, and 90% of the content on every one of them is about the athlete off the field. If we just wanted the on the field stuff, ESPN would have one channel, not five (?) and that one would report about fifteen minutes a day.

      We want big heroes that are heroic along every dimension. It may be unrealistic, but that is what we pay the hundred million for. When athletes accept the hundred mil, they are implicitly promising they will be more than just a tennis player.Serena is paid by Nike to be not just an athlete, but a personality. If she can’t handle that, OK, she can be like Tim Duncan and not accept the endorsements, or the Rolling Stone interviews, etc. She can confine her comments in the post game interviews to shot 7 in game three in set two. But if she puts herself out there, for reasons of money or ego or whatever, it’s perfectly fair for us to judge her.

      We want it both ways–we want greatness and we also want humanity, but they want it both ways too, the space to concentrate 100% on their craft and love for being more than just an athlete.

      • Bill Russell. Magic Johnson.Steve Nash. Jim Kelly. Mia Hamm. Chris Evert. Martina Navratilova. Roberto Clemente. Jackie Robinson. Arthur Ashe. Julius Erving. David Robinson. The list goes on.

        The problem with the elite athletes are automatically jerks argument is that it doesn’t even begin to be true. Not only does it not necessarily describe anything like a majority of great athletes, I’m not sure it describes a significant number of the elites. I hate prima donna assholes as bad as the next guy, and this argument lets genuinely bad human beings off the hook.

  2. I guess I am making an argument to separate the worlds. When Serena is on her game it is a beautiful thing to watch. And she is a lout. The lout is not very interesting and the tennis player is. Bill Russel was a thing of beauty to watch and he is a reasoned reasonable man who is interesting to listen to and read. He is interesting on and off the court. I am just not very interested in spending time on the loutish behaviors. They deserve all the criticism they get for those that find it worthwhile. I’m not going to buy their shoes anyway.

    And I know it is not realistic at the societal level … but it works for me.