Fear of the Williams Sisters

Venus and Serena Battle Charges of Arrogance and the Myth of the Superbred Black Athlete

Kevin Davis, a Seattle-based spokesman for the Williams family, says the sisters, notoriously wary of the media, turned down a request for an interview because they were preoccupied with school. The girls' outspoken father, Richard, a stand-in, did not return Voice calls.

Stories about the sisters' aloofness come largely from white sports commentators, although Associated Press sports writer Steve Wilstein noticed something different about Venus after she stepped off the Olympic gold medal platform. What she told reporters may have been prompted by McEnroe's verbal bashing. Venus had grown up at the Sydney Games, Wilstein observed. He quoted her as saying, "I guess I've graduated to a different level where I can be like some of the greats." There was no boasting in her words, no superiority in her voice, he added. Rather, at 20, she sounded as if she suddenly realized how good she has become.

What she now expressed, Wilstein noted, was a recognition of her obligation to live up to her position the way the most respected champions do. Venus spoke sympathetically about Davenport, who was forced out by a foot injury after a first-round win, and acknowledged the threat Monica Seles posed in a tough three-set semifinals match. "One of my only regrets is that Lindsay wasn't here," Williams said. "Potentially it could have been all three of us standing there on the stand, in any order. I was fortunate enough to get the gold, but Monica could have won the match the way she played the other day. She could have won the gold."

Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis.
illustration: The Dynamic Duo Studio
Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis.

Was Venus browbeaten into a conciliatory attitude toward her white counterparts? Why was the champ bowing down? Was that enough humility for John McEnroe?

Some contend that the alleged arrogance displayed by Venus and Serena extends to the homegrown style that defines the sisters' game. This truly upsets the white tennis experts. During the past few years, many of these pundits have criticized Venus and Serena, declaring that they lack proper technique, court sense, and tactics. They blame Richard and Oracene Williams, the parents who have been coaching their daughters their whole lives without any formal background in the sport. If only the sisters had professional coaches, claim the critics, they might be on a whole different level. Of course, as Wilstein pointed out, "The quick answer is that they already are really something."

Since July, the Williams sisters have won all but one of the events they have entered. Venus has won six titles, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Olympics. Second-seeded Serena, who won the U.S. Open at 17 last year, won the Princess Cup in Tokyo last month. She reached the finals of the Du Maurier Open at Montreal in August. She won the first set against Hingis before being forced to retire in the third set with a foot injury. Improving her record to 37-8, Serena captured the Faber Grand Prix in Hannover, Germany, in February and the Los Angeles Open in August. Serena and Venus won the women's doubles gold medal at Sydney.

The racist message of Glory Halle also reflects a more subtle argument in academia and among some sports commentators that when robust blacks like Venus and Serena rise to the top it's not because they have trained long and hard but because they are genetically predisposed to be superior athletes. "I read articles about how strong Venus and Serena are and about their incredible serves, almost implying that it is a natural thing because they are black," says Jon Entine, who attempts to debunk the myth of the supernigger in Taboo. "The reality is that whites have much more natural upper-body strength than blacks."

Entine says that he has "actually talked about this with a couple of my black friends," and in some of their conversations he has pointed to white athletes' domination in the hammer throw, the shot-put, wrestling, and weight-lifting competitions. "Something like 16 out of the top 20 weight lifters are white," he explains. "I would think that Martina Navratilova's and even Lindsay Davenport's serves are as good as Venus's and Serena's in terms of speed."

If one buys into Entine's argument, even out-and-out racists like Glory Halle have been fooled by the Williams sisters' muscular appearances. "Oh, they have a more chiseled upper body because they have less natural body fat," Entine declares. "You constantly see this in weight lifting; blacks do not lift as much as whites, but they have a more chiseled look because they have less natural body fat. All blacks have less natural body fat because they evolved in warmer climates," he adds.

"Asians have more natural body fat than anybody else because historically they have evolved in northern climates. So Venus and Serena look more athletic, but the idea that they have any natural talents that have given them an edge—rather than coming from hard work—is absolutely racist and not reflective of the science." (John Hoberman, author of a rival book, Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, describes Entine as "an amateur who got in over his head" while grappling with the complicated subject of race science. "I think it's bad science journalism," says Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Entine, he adds, "claims that scientific research to date proves that black athletes are genetically superior to whites" when "the evidence is clearly insufficient to make any such case." Hoberman and Entine have accused each other of misrepresenting their positions on the genetic hypothesis.)

« Previous Page
Next Page »