The Serena Sexism Debate Is Not Black And White

To understand Serena you need to understand the mountain she's climbed.

When I was in my early twenties and pulling beers at a club up on the Murray during university summer holidays, the Australian Open was being shown on one of the club’s big screen TVs. One of the regular customers was intently watching Serena Williams play Maria Sharapova in a semi.

I asked him who he was barracking for. Unflinchingly, and without any hint of shame, he answered that he f***ing hated Williams. He called her a black bitch who, he said, looked like a gorilla.  He even suggested that she shouldn’t be able to play because she had an unfair advantage.

I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, and didn’t stick around to ask.

Last weekend, the same Serena Williams was in the US Open Final throwing a tantrum for the ages. By now you know the details, but just in case you've been hiding in a cave -- after receiving multiple code violations, she claimed that she was being unfairly treated by chair umpire Carlos Ramos because she was a woman. She also claimed he was a ‘thief’ for stealing a point from her.

“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark,” Williams later said.

“He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’”.

Well-known super-brat and seven-time Grand Slam winner John McEnroe agreed. “I’ve said far worse,” he said on ESPN. “She’s right about the guys being held to a different standard, there’s no question.”

From where I sat the decisions of Ramos didn’t appear sexist or unfair. But I wasn’t outraged by her behaviour. The discussion at the bar with the racist Williams-hater all those years ago gave me some small insight into the prejudices she would have undoubtedly faced in her life.

Serena Williams trains as her father Richard Williams looks on during day five of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 28, 2009 in Paris, France. Image: Getty

As a white male it would be impossible to understand the life of a black woman who began her life in one of the most dangerous and deprived areas of the US to become a 23-time Grand Slam winner.

But make no mistake, throughout the journey to the top of the tennis mountain, she would have experienced both racism and sexism by the bucket load. This does not excuse her infrequent on court outbursts, but it does give some insight into her combative, competitive and aggressive disposition.

Throughout her career there have been occasions when her fiery passion has overflowed in the form of tantrums full of vitriolic language that falls well outside the spirit of the game.

But on most occasions it hasn’t. Yes, she plays with a certain edge and confrontation that generally simmers away underneath the surface, but it’s a vital part of her game. She’s strong, determined and even aggressive and she’s used those characteristics to become arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time.

So, it seems that her greatest strength is also her undoing. It’s complex. But so is Serena. And perhaps this is where the outrage stems from. Her life and career make people think in nuanced and complex ways, which is not necessarily social media’s strength.

Of course there are some who think none of this matters and that any talk of sexism or racism simply distracts from discussions about her more blatant and obvious bad behaviour on court.

For them, Williams’ behaviour was inexcusable. Their sentiment is that Williams is a brat. A bad loser. A bully. A villain. But I don’t think it’s that straightforward. And I don’t think she cares if people like her or not. If she’s come across anyone like the bloke I encountered at the bar all those years ago, I dare say she’s used to it.