Fever Pitch: Judge Serena Williams by her performances on court, not her sex or race

Why must the tennis star's incredible achievements continually be marred by prejudice? asks Ed Bearryman

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Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that, as I watched Serena Williams power her way to yet another grand slam at the French Open on Saturday, the attention of the two women in my company immediately turned, not to this immense achievement, but to the shape and size of the victor’s body.

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After all it’s no news that we exist in a society whereby a high proportion of our female-focused media eggs on our women to gang up on each other, especially when it comes to physical appearance.

The Ring of Truth and Sidebar of Shame have long-since pervaded our coffee table chit-chats.

And of all sportspeople, Serena probably cops it just about as harshly as anyone.

On some occasions male journalists have been known to come over all Mills and Boon when describing her on-court attire, just as Bill Mouland did on the Daily Mail website in 2003, when he excited readers by telling them her dress had “adhered to her like clingfilm, emphasising every astonishing body contour.” Phwoar, indeed, eh, Billy boy?

It’s hard to decide whether to be more fed up with the sheer creepiness of that piece or just the sheer tedium that body image is the first prism through which we view our female icons.

And it’s not just from outside the sport that Williams must face this relentless, regressive obsession with her ‘contours’.

At an exhibition match in Sao Paolo, Brazil, late last year, world No 9 Caroline Wozniacki appeared on court having generously stuffed her vest and skirt in an apparent imitation of her rival.

The stunt sparked an outraged response, in which Wozniacki was accused of being racist – the stuffing was interpreted in some quarters as having mocked something very specific about African American body types – but Williams responded: “I know Caro and would call her my friend.”

With friends like that, who needs the Daily Mail?

Another rival, 19-year-old American up-and-comer Sloane Stephens, recently tore into Williams for being aloof around the circuit and chastised her for the way she “went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”

Again, Williams responded with measure and caution.

There appears to be a continual reluctance to judge Williams, as almost all of her peers are judged, primarily by her achievements on a tennis court.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the shoddy treatment she habitually receives at our very own Wimbledon Championships.

It’s supposed to be an occasion steeped in gentility, politeness, generosity and warmth, but where Serena (and indeed her sister Venus) are concerned, proceedings at SW19 are all too often marred with hostility and resentment.

There have been matches here where every one of her dropped points is cheered, and every queried line call whistled and booed.

In 2011 when news filtered through to centre court that Serena had been knocked out in the 4th round by Marion Bartoli, the crowd erupted with a roar normally reserved for news of a British progression.

None of this would raise a squeak, let alone an eyebrow, in the world of football, but here, at Wimbledon, it is completely out of context with everyday crowd etiquette.

Just ask Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal what life is like at Wimbledon as a returning champion, and they will tell you of an atmosphere of fondness and adulation. Not so for Serena who, let’s not forget, has won this tournament five times.

It comes to something when a British crowd can’t see past their prejudices – and let’s not beat around the bush about the racial element to this antipathy – and admire greatness.   

Perhaps at this point it’s worth reminding ourselves just how great Serena is. Currently ranked No 1 in the world, she has achieved an 89% win ratio in her career so far, has won Olympic gold, notched up 13 grandslam doubles titles as well as 16 grand slam singles titles, making her the 6th most successful player of all time and with every chance of added to that legacy before she calls time.

That is a roll call of achievement worth shouting about above all else, and as one of the world’s greatest ever athletes she deserves for it to start producing some positive noise. Centre court at Wimbledon on 24 June would be a good place to start.

Ed Bearryman is features editor at Match of the Day magazine

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