Sabine Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final last year. Officially, that’s why she was selected to play the opening women’s singles match Tuesday at the All England Club.
I wish I believed that’s the main reason they chose her. It’s only suspicion, based on years of anecdotal evidence, that tells me Lisicki was picked partly because of last year, but partly because she is blonde. She is white. She is pretty.
And also because of this: She did not do the Crip Walk on Centre Court.
Is this payback against Serena Williams for her celebratory dance after crushing Maria Sharapova for the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon in 2012? After all these years, Wimbledon and the Williams sisters still are not a comfortable fit. Even if this snub is just accidental, Wimbledon officials are proving yet again to be too stubborn to move up a few generations and too oblivious to note how it looks. And how it hurts tennis.
Whatever it is, Williams hasn’t complained. The first match at Wimbledon traditionally goes to the defending champ. It’s just an honorary thing, but the little things still carry big messages. The problem is, last year’s champ, Marion Bartoli, has retired. So officials just had to pick someone, like the previous year’s winner (Williams), the No. 1 ranked player (also Williams) or, yes, the loser from last year’s final (Lisicki).
They could have put anyone in that match, really. The inspired choice would have been Venus Williams. She is the queen of Wimbledon, but she’s getting old and has physical issues and isn’t going to win another title. What a great chance to honor her one more time. And if not Venus, then Serena, who also has meant so much to the place and the sport. Frankly, it would have sent a good message about Wimbledon, too.
Instead, they picked the young, blonde and white.
Race is always the undeniable undercurrent with the Williams sisters and tennis. It feels as if sexism is involved, too, as blonde gets too much emphasis. A few years ago, Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko were inexplicably put on Centre Court one7 day. Eventually, TV rights holder BBC explained it, saying that appearance on TV is a factor in these decisions.
But with this latest decision, it feels more like continued bickering between Williams and Wimbledon.
“I can’t figure it out yet,” Williams said. “Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”
No, she didn’t say that on Friday, when Lisicki was given the match. She said it in 2011, after she and Venus were both moved to an outer court, Court 2, on the same day. A year earlier, the Queen of England was coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Williams was excited, and talked openly and publicly about how bad her curtsy was. She said she’d been practicing it, and she demonstrated. She wanted to play in front of the Queen. Next thing you knew, on the day of the Queen’s appearance, Serena was put out on Court 2. Centre Court had Brit Andy Murray, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, and also, Caroline Wozniacki, who was. . . Young, blonde and white.
That still seems to be what Wimbledon thinks tennis looks like. It is the most beautiful tennis venue, and feels as if it’s a tennis museum. They still prefer players to wear all white. And while Wimbledon doggedly preserves the old time feeling of tennis, it doesn’t seem to grasp that without taking action, that also preserves an ugly underbelly of the sport’s history.On the day the Queen came, Serena never complained, and instead stayed out on Court 2 after her match and signed autographs for kids. That was her statement, actually: She was there for the people, not for the Queen.
In fairness, these issues are rarely clearcut and easy to define. Less than a year before she wasn’t put in front of the Queen, Williams got international attention with a threatening, f-bomb laced tirade against a line judge who had correctly called a footfault against her at the U.S. Open. Maybe that behavior was part of what Wimbledon didn’t want to risk putting in front of the Queen.
The Williams effect is strong in women’s tennis in the U.S., as most of the emerging group of top young American women players is black: Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Madison Keys. But it would be naive to think everything has been worked out.
This spring, Williams considered breaking her personal ban on the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Years ago, she and Venus were booed there, heard racist remarks directed toward their father and vowed never to go back. The tournament is under different management now, which has consistently reached out to the sisters to make amends. But in the end, Williams still could not bring herself to play there this year.
Serena’s big rival is Maria Sharapova, partly because Sharapova fits the white ideal of tall, blonde, pretty. She has gotten more money in endorsements than Serena. So all of that added up, and when Williams crushed Sharapova to win Olympic gold at Wimbledon, she did the Crip Walk in celebration. It’s a gang dance that was making its way into the mainstream.
Williams said she was just celebrating, and not thinking of any meanings. But it stood out anyway, that dance at that place.
It might not have been such a blatant tit-for-tat back at Williams that Wimbledon gave Lisicki the opening match. Even if Lisicki is the returning player who did best at last year’s Wimbledon, even if this snub is done somehow without purpose, it’s on Wimbledon to do the best thing on purpose.
Any tennis museum should be thrilled to feature one of the most important parts of the sport’s history.