How Tennis Has Been Backhanding Black Women

Art by Jasmine Maggio

Serena Williams, arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has been unnecessarily targeted by the lasting elitism, racism, and sexism of the U.S. Open Association. Having won over $84 million in prize money (more than any other female athlete), she has paved the way for women in professional tennis all over the world. Yet, despite being the incredibly decorated four-time Olympic gold-medalist, Williams continues to be subject to a disproportionately high level of scrutiny.

Since her complicated childbirth, the star tennis player has suffered from blood clots. As a result, Williams wore a ‘catsuit’ uniform which helped her blood circulation when she played in the US Open. While many tennis enthusiasts praised her sleek look, many others were just as quick to criticize. Even the French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli criticized her by commenting, “I think we sometimes went too far, and the combination of Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place”.  Immediate backlash broke out against the president’s comments, and some even accused him of deep-rooted racism and misogyny.

Amidst the chaos of this controversy, what many people aren’t considering is the problematic history of racism in tennis that many high-ranking tennis federations have continued to repeat. Williams has been continuously subjected to various racist and sexist practices. For instance, although she has never failed a drug test, she has been tested twice as much as any other top American women player. This practice plays into the toxic notion that Williams should be unable to play tennis at such a high level without the help of a performance-enhancing drug.

The racism and bigotry that both the Williams sisters have faced is absolutely disgusting. They have both frequently been characterized as “savages”, and their game has been branded as “pummeling” and “overwhelming” by many competitors. Their body types have prompted comments on how they are too “masculine,” and how “no woman should look like that.” Racism has also played a considerable role in both their careers, specifically in the way the sisters were treated at the notorious Indian Wells Tournament in 2001. At the tournament, Serena was subject to racially-charged comments, even to the point of spectators using the n-word to taunt her. One horrifying comment included a man saying, “I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.” Shortly after, the Williams boycotted the tournament. Looking back, their treatment seems appalling, but a closer examination of current events reveals that not a lot has changed.

Sexism, as well as racism, is still rampant and apparent when it comes to the way many tennis players are portrayed in the media. This trend of sexism was further continued this year at the U.S Open, when Alizé Cornet, another accomplished female tennis player, was subject to double standards.  During a short break, Cornet decided to change her shirt quickly when she realized it was on backwards. She walked towards the back of the court, took off her shirt to reveal her sports bra, and quickly put on a new shirt. She was immediately penalized and was given a violation by the umpire. Recognizing the obvious fault in this, the tennis community rallied to support her, and even male players came to her defense and called out the sexism. Andy Murray, a talented British tennis player, tweeted, “Alize Cornet came back to court after 10-minute heat break. Had her fresh shirt on back to front. Changed at back of court. Got a code violation. Unsportsmanlike conduct…but the men can change shirts on court,” exposing the fact that men had never been penalized for dress changes on the court. Eventually, upon recognizing this double standard, the U.S. Open issued a statement claiming that it “wasn’t a code of violation,” but the misogyny had already been exposed.

Recently, a new tennis star, Naomi Osaka, beat Serena Williams and became the first ever Japanese woman to play in a US Open final, much less to win one. Yet, the story that came out of it was one completely focused on Williams. It did not mention that Osaka has had to face tremendous hardship because she is half Haitian, half Japanese because she is a successful woman, only furthering America’s reluctance to accept Asian women in sports. Even the commentators of the competition openly disregarded her amazing feat. While Serena Williams has overcome many obstacles, Naomi Osaka has as well, and her abilities and win were both amazing and historical.

Societal and cultural harms have permeated nearly every single industry, and sports are no exception. Hopefully, this trend of sexism and racism in professional tennis diminishes, and the only meter of comparison and judgement becomes skill.


-Ayesha Middya