Fear of the Williams Sisters

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

Even whites who claim to admire Venus and Serena Williams tend to harbor ill feelings about the tennis stars' reputed penchants for arrogance and cockiness. Outside of the National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadow on the September evening of Venus's greatest athletic triumph, the polite put-downs of the courtside claques were being rendered in naked perspective by Glory Halle, a self-described "new millennium sidewalk artist" with a white-supremacist jones for Venus and Serena. Halle was applying the finishing touches to a caricature depicting the sisters running a gauntlet of white fans "having a shit fit." In Halle's drawing of an imaginary doubles competition, the angry fans are hurling "some kind of dung" at the top-ranking pretenders after they have trounced Martina Hingis, ranked No. 1 in the world, and second-ranked Lindsay Davenport, with their "thundering strength and cannonlike serves."

Many of Halle's sketches and drawings tout what he calls "anti-hero worship." But while he despises fellow whites like Mark McGwire, he has a deep hatred of blacks like Darryl Strawberry, Mike Tyson, and the Williams sisters. "No offense, but I don't like your shithead rappers, your baseball players, your basketball players, your prizefighters, and the Venus sisters [sic]," mutters Halle, an unkempt, tattoo-smeared, hemp-smoking, shadowy hobo who "resides with the Master Race, dude" (his last known address).

When the Williams sisters compete in the upcoming Chase Championships—to be held November 13 to 19 in Madison Square Garden—Halle, who sports a swastika nose ring, might show up to unveil his "charcoal on paper" portraying the ebony-hued Venus and Serena with lardy buttocks, arms the size of tree trunks, and the hind legs of super-thoroughbred fillies. Halle's mocking devaluation of the sisters' phenomenal talents seems emblematic of the resentment that "boneless white meat" like him (the artist's own deprecating quip) and some in tennis's aristocracy have been expressing since the sisters rose up from a California ghetto and began defeating power-hitters on the women's circuit.

Although they are idolized by many African Americans, backhanded bad-mouthing of the broad-shouldered, long-legged, and attractive Williams sisters is not uncommon among the blueblood cabals, who imply in their running commentary that poor Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. They criticize the sisters' game (the way they rush the net—only souped-up niggers could be that good, suggesting that Venus and Serena should be tested for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs); their walk (a ghettoized swagger is unbecoming); their attitude (too moody, withdrawn); their nappy tresses (the colorful beads are deemed "childish"); even their clothing (too FuBu, and Serena is much too obsessed with the color purple); and, of course, their parents (overprotective, amateur psychologists).

Says Harlem street basketball legend Pee Wee Kirkland: "I think the Williams sisters intentionally fight against the obstinate evil of racism. It's almost unbelievable what black athletes must go through to compete with people that the tennis world wants to accept as their great players."

What is it about these two Compton fly girls that gets under the skin of even Donald Trump, who offered the famously temperamental John McEnroe $1 million to take on one of the pair? "When you're looking at the Williams sisters you're looking at change—and people in our society fear change," asserts Kirkland.

While Venus and Serena were in Sydney for the Olympics, McEnroe, the "mellowed bad boy" of the tour, took the sisters to task in a column in the London Sunday Telegraph. "What they have achieved is great, but they have no respect for anyone in the game," McEnroe wrote. He objected to comments by Serena, who last year said she would like to play in a couple of men's tournaments. "Do women golfers say they could go out and beat Tiger Woods?" McEnroe asked. He also accused Venus of displaying a lack of humility while winning Wimbledon this year. "Enough is enough," wrote McEnroe. "Would it kill them to say hello to people in the locker room?"

McEnroe restated his opinion—expressed earlier in The New Yorker—that "a lot of male college kids and members of the seniors' tour could beat the sisters." But, contrary to press reports, he insisted he had never challenged either of the sisters to a match. "I have no intention of getting involved, nor do I particularly want to have anything to do with them until they start to show people in the sport a little more respect," McEnroe said.

Critics like Jon Entine, author of the controversial book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, assert that it is the kind of respect that blacks like Tiger Woods (who maintains he's not African American), Michael Jordan, and the late Arthur Ashe have shown.

"I have to say that Arthur Ashe was very accessible; Michael Jordan was very accessible, and Tiger Woods is very accessible—all these people are beloved, and people were never threatened by them," Entine claims. "Arthur Ashe was as much a Southern black as he was a black, and being a Southern black with this kind of deferential civility ended up making it easier for him. Venus Williams won't apologize to anybody. I think that you can almost compare the Williams sisters to the bratty John McEnroe, who wasn't liked in his younger years. When the Williams sisters talk, they seem arrogant. They are definitely wonderful talents, but they're still not No. 1 yet and their arrogance is a little larger than their achievements at this point."

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."

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.)

Some people, Entine claims, erroneously cite his book to justify the Williams sisters' dominance: To them, it is as if the blacker you are, the more athletic you are prone to be. "And that's a total distortion of what I understand," Entine emphasizes. "These are two women who have defied incredible odds, who have worked very diligently, who have refined their game, who have an interesting mixture of power and finesse, but who are no more powerful naturally than any white athlete. It's like white America wants to steal from two dogged, very scrappy young women the fruits of their success. They have earned every success that they have gotten, and it has nothing to do with any natural gifts."

Two years ago, ex-Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White told Fox News Channel that he agreed with former CBS football analyst Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, who was fired in 1988 after saying that a black athlete was better than a white athlete because "he's been bred to be that way because of his thigh size and big size." Snyder added that slave owners would breed big black men with big women to produce big black children, leading to superior black athletes today. "I agree with what Jimmy 'the Greek' said . . . that slaves, bigger slaves, were pretty much used as studs. And the comments that he made about that was true. That did happen," White told Fox.

In his book, Entine quotes other black sports greats who agreed with Snyder, such as former Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill; Bernie Casey, a former receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers; and Tommy Smith, the sprinter who gave the clenched-fist salute from the victory stand during the National Anthem at the 1968 Olympics. "I think Jimmy 'the Greek' Snyder was absolutely wrong in what he said even though some blacks have supported what he said," Entine argues. "The reality is that the body-type differences we see in blacks and whites are really the results of thousands of years of evolution—not 100 or 200 years. And there is almost no evidence to suggest that there was any real breeding going on. That's one of these myths that a lot of blacks and whites have adopted. Jimmy 'the Greek' was right in the sense that he recognized that there were different body types, but he was wrong in ascribing it to slavery."

While Entine was promoting his book earlier this year, the myth of the super-endowed black athlete surfaced once again. During a debate on Fox with Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality, Entine says, Innis tried to convince him that slave breeding is a historical fact. "I was all but trying to say, 'Roy, you're wrong,' " Entine recalls. "It was very embarrassing. There is no indication that blacks were bred from slavery, because there was no chance for that kind of selective breeding. Most of the time, they were just raped by slovenly white guys; it was whites screwing their women slaves."

Entine contends that selective slave breeding is one of those myths that have cropped up repeatedly to diminish the achievements of black athletes. In Taboo, Entine lauds the African American scholar-athlete tradition. "If you go back to the 19th century," he argues, "all the great African American athletes were scholars. People back then thought just the opposite of what they think today of black athletes. All the great athletes, whether they were bikers, involved in horse racing or baseball or the early days of football, went to American colleges. If anything, that's a tradition that people don't recognize about black athleticism in this country, which is the opposite of the images and the racist sense that people have about this."

The Williams sisters may be faster and stronger than most of their rivals, but they also play smart tennis, a fact that some sports commentators and writers are loath to acknowledge. "After the semifinals game between Venus and Martina Hingis at the U.S. Open, you never heard the announcer say that Hingis broke down mentally—but that's what happened," argues Pee Wee Kirkland. "Whenever Hingis or Lindsay Davenport breaks down mentally, the first thing they say is, 'Well, they're not in the same condition as the Williams sisters. They got tired.' When they break down it's because they're tired, but when we break down it's because we can't think the game of tennis. How can that be?"

Budd Mishkin of NY1, along with Steve Wilstein, is one of the rare exceptions among sports commentators who see it differently. Said Mishkin in one report after Venus had won the U.S. Open: "The talent was always there; now there's a mental toughness. It was on display at Wimbledon this summer; it was on display in that classic match versus Hingis, and once again in [the] final versus Lindsay Davenport, in which Venus Williams came from behind to win. . . . " In praise of Venus and Serena, Wilstein declared that "if their parents didn't teach them every nuance of the game, they encouraged them to think for themselves on the court, to learn as they go." He added: "And that's exactly what Venus and Serena have done. They don't look up in the stands at their parents for help or reassurance during a match, the way Martina Hingis looks toward her mother. Rather, they adjust strokes and strategy on their own, coaching themselves, improving match to match, tournament to tournament."


Additional reporting by Amanda Ward

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