Serena Williams + Fitness: The Conversation I Can’t Escape

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I have to acknowledge that there might not be a thought to be had about Serena Williams that Claudia Rankine hasn’t already expressed (and on which Serena herself hasn’t offered approval).

At this point, it’s impossible to know whether the work ‘fitness’ actually comes up during the commentary of every match Serena plays or if I’m just sensitive to it.  If it grates just hard enough on skin so sensitive that I notice its every utterance.

Because, honestly, there are plenty of things to dislike about American tennis commentary.  Watch any singles match between men ranked in the top ten and listen for every time someone asks, “Is that the best forehand service return/second serve return/one handed backhand on the tour?”  And when I say someone, of course I’m referring to a small group of white folks who’ve had successful enough careers in tennis or sports commentary or being John McEnroe’s younger brother to qualify them to be on air for forty hours a week.  (I know that James Blake occasionally does commentary for Tennis Channel and that LZ Granderson sat behind an ESPN desk for the duration of this year’s Wimbledon; they’ve been welcome additions but neither of them commentate during WTA matches.)  Endlessly discussing merit in terms of superlatives might be a fault of American sports commentary as a whole, but I can’t see myself watching other sports to come to a definitive conclusion.

Either way, tennis commentary is one of the few things in my life that I love to hate.  I delight in hearing Cliff Drysdale defend ‘Maria’ [Sharapova], as her calls her, in his posh South African accent (or I did before the start of her suspension).  I love it when commentators insist on calling players by nicknames to suggest that they have close personal relationships with players on tour.  John McEnroe, whose commentary style I’d call notably careless with a tangible desire to fill every second of air time, even some of the ones in which the ball is moving, repeatedly refers to Madison Keys as Maddie.  Chris Fowler is so eager to structure a narrative during matches that he regularly speaks over points to suggest hypothetical scenarios of matches’ progression.  Actually, Fowler’s endless talking is something I just hate.

Still, I got to spend two weeks laughing every time an uncomfortable voice interrupted with, “the clothing policy” when mentioning the all-white rule at Wimbledon this year.

During Serena’s three set victory in the second round of this year’s Wimbledon,  Chrissie Evert, while discussing how Serena’s anger often manifests on court in the form of well played points, said “[Serena]’ll ram the ball down your throat.”  I can’t imagine there are many viewers who don’t know about the incident to which she’s referring.  It’s even harder to imagine that Evert could say something so careless on live TV.  But she did, and I had to hear it.  And for better or worse, I don’t believe in the unending ability of well-meaning people to misspeak.  Evert said what she said for a reason, and if her goal was to make me flinch, she succeeded.

Evert has also spearheaded the discussion of fitness in the coverage of Serena’s matches.  When asked about Serena’s odds of winning during a match in the first week of the 2016 French Open, Evert said, “when it comes to Serena I’m always looking at her fitness and her footwork.” Movement on court plays a huge role in most tennis matches.  But trying to assign an arbitrary level of fitness to a professional athlete… I don’t get it (by which I mean, I absolutely get it).

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I can’t find the link between the never-ending discussion of Serena’s fitness and her success.  I don’t think it’s controversial to say that at least two of Serena’s three grand slam victories in 2015 came when she wasn’t playing her best (likely in relation to the mounting pressure of the records she was working to break).  And this year, even after losing two grand slam finals in a row, the significance of fitness that the commentators were seeing in the booth just didn’t translate for me on screen.  Because let’s face it, Serena’s best is better than everyone else on tour, so much so that she’s better than most players even when her stats are below what she’s capable of.

The fitness talking point isn’t even related to the key factors that affect her play (and I’ll put it out there, I think Patrick would agree): her attitude on court, her nerves, the consistency of her ball toss, how much risk she’s taking on second serve returns.  It’s about her body.

And the unavoidable fact that her body is black.  Because not only is she black, she has a body that looks like most professional athlete’s but few professional tennis players’.  I don’t actually want anyone to click through to this worthless NY Times article so in summation: the author calls Serena’s body “a mold-breaking muscular frame” and suggests that thinner female players are capable of but choose not to look more like Serena.  Which, may I say, is a hilarious self drag. To cop to choosing not to have strength and power comparable to the world’s best… Yikes.

In tennis coverage, there are aspects of basic respect that are only earned with success.  Like when Rafael Nadal’s career was at its peak and someone finally stopped ESPN from airing footage of the portion of his service motion that looks like he’s picking a wedgie.   I’m not sure how many consecutive French Opens he had to win before that happened.

So it’s telling that here are some things commentators don’t say about Serena’s body anymore.  When talking about her dresses, instead of sharing their personal opinions they read her public statements about her sources of inspiration.

But it would be too easy if the public discussion of Serena’s body truly ended.  Despite their conscious efforts, I still have to listen to white voices comment on the very personhood of someone whose work and success feels so personally significant.  When she’s playing a woman under 5’4, whose talent lies in their ability to return balls rather than hitting them with power, she’s either not fit enough or she’s “intimidating” and “has an enormous presence” as said during the 2nd round of doubles at Wimbledon this year.

Who knows, maybe if the Kardashians’ fascination with the black body spurns more than just a fad, in a few generations the WTA tour will look more like Serena than Sharapova.  But for now, whenever I watch Serena play, I listen to commentary so incredibly tone deaf that I have to find ways to laugh.

Serena herself has started addressing the racist shit she’s gone through in the last few years, as the significance of her legacy becomes more tangible with each title.  Acknowledging the racism within tennis coverage is about the only thing she hasn’t done.  To think that one of the first to credit Serena as the best ever did so fifteen years after accusing her family of match fixing on live TV is infuriating.  It hurts to know that not only do the voices of tennis have the type of deep seated, casual hatred to fuel a thousand think pieces, but that those voices are so powerful that even the viewers who love her have to hear about it.

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