The big question about why Serena and Venus Williams have been pushed to an outer court at Wimbledon, away from the main show courts, isn’t whether it was justified. It isn’t, so tournament officials tried to explain it away with a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. The real question is this:
Was it sexist or was it racist? Or maybe both.
Serena complained about it Thursday, tweaking lightly after winning her second round match 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 over Simona Halep.
“They like to put us on Court 2, me and Venus, for whatever reason,’’ she said. “I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.’’
“They’re never moved across,’’ Serena said. “Actually, Venus and I have won more Wimbledons by ourselves than a lot of the players. . .So you know, at the end of the day, I don’t know. Like I said, they’re not going to change, doesn’t look like.’’
With the sharp and automatic divide that comes with anything to do with the Williams sisters, it’s a safe bet that the two strongest reactions to that comment were 1) eye-rolling about a prima donna or 2) outcry.
I feel both. It gets tiring hearing players whine about the indignity of having to play at Wimbledon in a way that’s not exactly what they want. On Tuesday, Williams, the defending champ, was in tears over the honor of being able to play at Wimbledon again. Two days later, her attitude had gone from the joy of just being here to the anger of having been placed there.
But she was right. Why do Venus and Serena find themselves on Court 2 so often? Last year, the Queen attended Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Serena showed respect in advance by talking about how bad her curtsy was, and how she was working on it.
She was giddy. And then she was put on Court 2. The Queen would stay at Centre Court.
Williams had to be embarrassed, but she didn’t complain. In fact, she stayed after her match and signed autographs for kids who might not have the money to see the biggest stars on the biggest courts. It was a touching move by Williams, while the Queen was entertained elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Centre Court that day featured Brit hope Andy Murray, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and. . .
Caroline Wozniacki. So it was a black woman, Serena, on an outer court while a blonde, white woman who had never won a major played for the Queen. Venus, who was off that day, and Serena have dominated Wimbledon for a decade.
Was race involved in that decision? Sexism? Honestly, I thought most of all last year it was a concern about Serena’s behavior, coming off her f-bomb-laced tirade directed at a line judge who had made a correct call at the U.S. Open.
But the All England Club at Wimbledon is known for its snootiness. They still want players in white, and are stuck in a time when tennis was exclusive. Whatever their real intentions and reasons, the club looks like a walking stereotype when it deals with the Williams sisters.
People don’t like to talk about this, but the truth is, there is an obvious racial element to the Williams sisters’ narrative in a sport that was seen for so long as white, country club game. That is always an underlying thing surrounding them.
The truth is, last year was an outrage, an insult to Serena. And then she was put Court 2 again Thursday, after Venus was. Meanwhile, Lleyton Hewitt played Robin Soderling on Centre Court.
“Match scheduling at Wimbledon is a complex business and involves the referee and his experienced team in trying to achieve a fair and balanced draw from many competing interests and wishes, including the players,’’ the club said a statement. “There is certainly no intention to favor any player or players. . .’’
Typically, they play three matches on Centre Court during a day, with two being men’s singles. The women’s match there Thursday featured French Open champ Li Na, who is the center of tennis’ push to develop in China. Court 1 was supposed to feature Maria Sharapova vs. Brit Laura Robson, but rain delays prevented the match from starting.
But there is no reason they can’t schedule more than one women’s match on a court in a day.
It is possible that Wimbledon just puts the matches it feels people want most to see on its main courts. Or, a few years ago, the rights-paying TV network BBC said that appearance is a factor in court assignments. That was after Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko played on Centre Court with little credentials other than good looks.
Serena doesn’t fit the typical white tennis ideal: tall, blonde and rail thin.
For sure, tennis was not the reason Serena and Venus have been pushed to an outer court. Women’s tour commissioner Stacey Allaster said Thursday in a statement about Serena: “I share her disappointment.’’
With tennis’ history, a snooty club, and racial divide surrounding the Williams sisters, suspicion is only going to grow. Maybe one day, Serena said, she’ll figure this out?
Oh, she already has.