Maybe you’ve been on a remote retreat somewhere without internet access. Maybe you’ve been on a no-electronics challenge. Those are the only reasons I can imagine you not knowing that Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam singles tennis champion and one of the world’s great athletes of all time, has played her final tournament matches. Here she is, in action this week.
The news and social media are filled with odes to Serena– what she means to tennis, to women’s tennis, to black women in tennis, to black women athletes– everyone, it seems, has something to say about how Serena Williams has touched their lives.
That includes us at Fit is a Feminist Issue. We’ve written a lot about Serena and the countless ways she’s a role model for us. We’ve spoken out fiercely about those who have policed her body, her clothing on and off the court, and tried to deny her the right to adequate health care, and the right to protest calls made during competitions in the way that men protest. Among other things.
In case you’ve been on a social media hiatus, 1) congratulations; and 2) among the things you missed was director Jane Campion accepting a Critics Choice Award for Best Director, giving a speech that included the following:
“Venus and Serena– you’re marvels but you don’t have to compete against the men like I do.”
Yes, she was referring to Venus and Serena Williams, tennis legends. Venus’ non-reaction reaction was clear:
Venus and Serena were at the awards ceremony as executive producers of “King Richard”, a film about them and their father. It was nominated in four categories and won the best actor award for Will Smith.
Jane Campion’s comments were awful and racist. They were wrong, dead wrong. Yes, she later apologized (here’s a CNN article about the apology). Campioin pointed out that both Venus and Serena have faced off against men on the court and opened doors for women, etc.
But hey, that doesn’t even begin to cover the degree to which the Williams sisters have competed against men. Their entire lives they’ve had to compete against boys and men:
to get court time as kids
to get coaching as kids
to get sponsorships for equipment, travel, entry fees, shoes…
Apropos of the last item: Serena has 23 Grand Slam wins, #2 behind Margaret Court. Both of these women have won more Grand Slam singles matches than any male tennis player. While we’re at it, so has Steffi Graf, with 22 wins. Male tennis player Rafael Nadal is number 4 (behind Steffi), with 21 wins. In 2021, Venus had the all-time record for number of Grand Slam tournament matches played, at 90. And she’s won seven Grand Slam titles. And yet: even the Wikipedia page for Grand Slam wins lists the men’s singles wins first. Look here:
Any woman who’s played a competitive sport, or knows a woman who has, knows how we have to compete with men:
Yes, folks, Venus and Serena are marvels. They are marvels at competing successfully in the world with men, with racism, with sexism, with all sorts of barriers that ordinary and extraordinary women athletes face every day. Thank you, Williams sisters. Thank you so much.
So, Naomi Osaka. World #2, unbelievable tennis player, YOUNG PERSON (she’s 23 years old). She heads to the French Open, aka “Roland Garros” (we’re posh, peeps – we call the thing by the name bestowed upon the hallowed grounds, and there are tiny sandwiches somewhere, and patisserie, and LOTS OF BOOZE). She says: you know what? I would rather not do the press conferences this time, thanks. I am a tennis player at the elite level and barely an adult and my clay court game is a tricky work in progress. I need to focus, and also cope with all the feelings while focusing, which means I really don’t need to have to field a bunch of questions about my sexuality, or the depth of my human flaws, or other outright irrelevant crap after every match, thanks. For my mental health, you know, I just would rather not. It’s about the game, right?
Friends, she broke the internet. Of course she did.
WTF cares if tennis stars do the damn press circuit at the Grand Slam tournaments? Their sponsors, sure. (Although the sponsors make their money back hand over fist regardless, and I’d bet my new racket that Osaka’s sponsors are finding this massive controversy, splashed all over the place online, is breaking their way.) The Grand Slam organizers too, yes: they have a vested interest in stuff always going to the plan they have so carefully wrought. So the money folks, they really care.
Beyond the economics, there are, from my perspective, two main reasons the world seems in a huge way to care about Osaka’s decision to refuse to do press at the FO. There’s the fairly basic answer, and then there’s the answer behind that answer – the nuances.
The first part – the basics – smarter people than me have already weighed in on. Writing in the Guardian sports blog, Jonathan Liew has pointed out that when stars like Osaka say ‘no thanks’ to the press, it’s another reminder – a billboard-sized, viral Twitter-shaped reminder – that the mostly-white-often-older dudes who still rule the sports pages in many conventional media outlets matter less and less and less. If Naomi has something she needs to tell me, she’s gonna tell me directly, on social. And that scares the bejeezus out of those dudes.
Meanwhile, also in the Guardian (NB: wholly subscriber-funded, not owned by billionaires! As a researcher it’s the paper I trust most in the world), Marina Hyde points out that Osaka’s “mistake” was to experience her mental health and address its needs while still actively competing and winning Slams – as opposed to, you know, burying that shit, blowing up in a spectacular and headline-inducing way, crawling off for a while, then coming back with a memoire. The media (hi Rupert Murdoch! Thanks for setting such an incredibly ethical example!) LOVE a case of celebrity mental breakdown and a subsection of this media will defend to their graves their exclusive right to report on these breakdowns in the most shaming and salacious ways, damn the consequences. (I urge you to read the whole Hyde piece; Marina is a comic genius and as far as I am concerned she is the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift.)
OK, now for the nuance-y bit. I’m a beginner tennis player and I only half-glance at the Grand Slams over my partner’s shoulder most of the time, but the Osaka story caught my eye because I’ve just finished going through the proofs of a new book chapter I’ve written about girlhood, gender identity, and sport. Its focus is the amazing 2016 play The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, which follows a team of high school-aged soccer players, all young women, as they navigate a season. They are alone on stage until the very end of the play. Their pitch is their space to own and control and be messy and flawed and incredible and talented and mean little shits because they are TEENAGE GIRLS. They use that space to actualize who they are, to be better selves every practice, to dream up and then enact, in their shared embodiment, who they want to become. There are no media folks (nor anybody else) present.
This is revolutionary. Why? Because, as my chapter argues, the history of women in competitive sport is a history of the male gaze freaking out like crazy. Add in girls doing their own thing, for their own benefit, and things get really sweaty in a hurry.
(I want to be clear here that “the male gaze” is a patriarchal construct, not a feature of biology attached only to actual men: it refers to how all of us humans who live under patriarchy – a social structure in which men are valued, culturally, above others – learn to look at bodies, including our own. Think about it: when you look in the mirror, as a strong and fit woman, what do you see? I see my perimenopausal hips and thighs and think, rats. What did I eat yesterday? BAM! That’s me looking through my female eyes with a male gaze.)
Sporty women are a huge problem for the male gaze. Why? They are STRONG. They are bulky – muscle-toned. They are working their bodies for a purpose other than attracting male attention – this is weird and taboo to patriarchy. (Check out stuff we’ve written here and elsewhere on the blog about Serena Williams, and also Sam’s great posts about women on bikes, to learn more.) Sporty women are also, of course, incredibly beautiful, graceful, powerful – damn fun to watch. So the upshot is: we want to watch them, with our patriarchally-trained gazes, but in the process we (even sometimes feminist humans like me!) experience serious cognitive dissonance. How can they be so incredible to watch while not conforming to patriarchal expectations about what incredible-to-watch women are supposed to look like?Are you even allowed out in public with thighs that strong?
From here – DIRECTLY – comes the now-infamous corollary dispensed by La Mostly Male Presse (again, see Serena, women on bikes, Megan Rapinhoe, you name the bad-ass girl athlete): if you’re going to compete at this high level, laydeez, we are going to reserve the right to judge you constantly, shame you continuously, and call all of your tactical choices into question. Otherwise, you make us look a bit too hard at the structures of our social systems and our heads start to hurt and we have to consider perhaps, um, making some serious structural changes. So we’re going to push you back down, down, down. Don’t be so uppity, miss tennis star. Who exactly do you think you are?
And here – HERE – is where the rubber hits the clay, so to speak, for Naomi Osaka.
She’s young, and like all young people thrust into the limelight, she’s having to figure out some basic ontology (aka, who am I? What will I become?) while also competing at the most elite level, in the public eye. She is vulnerable and fragile like all young women who grew up under patriarchy, but to the Nth degree because tennis star (AND woman of colour, hello structural racism!!).
Add to that Roland Garros, which is a clay court surface and thus clashes with some of the strongest aspects of Osaka’s game, and both Naomi and La Presse know what’s most likely to come of any tete-a-tete post-game. Who the hell wouldn’t blame her for saying, you know, I think I’d rather play tennis than live out my existential fears on camera, so that maybe I can improve my clay court game. Ok with you?
Was her “hard no” to all press a bit OTT, maybe even a bit childish? Dunno – depends on your lived experience. When I was 23 I was only just recently not a child, so maybe a bit? #mostlynormal
Is Osaka a flawed human who let some probably nice people down in the process of making this call (for ex: occasional amazing female sports journalists who might have asked awesome questions)? Sure. She’s flawed as hell – have you seen her clay court game? Again, really not the point though, unless you feel safe tossing those stones.
What Osaka is asking, really asking, is that we hear her when she says: I’m supposed to play top-game tennis here and also face the press, all while keeping my shit together, and this combination of things is not, for me, actually possible. It’s not possible for some of my peers, too, and I wonder if perhaps we could take a look at the system and shift things so that maybe one day it could be possible, things could be kinder, and more fair for us all?
Funny how, when we ask questions just like that, the press corps and the Slam chiefs find it really, really hard to offer a good answer.
Many of us were rooting hard for Serena last week, and many of us have been rooting for her on and off the court for over two decades now. Her loss to Naomi Osaka was heartbreaking and hard to watch; it never seemed like she hit her Serena-stride. Were she to lose at playing her best, it would be easier to accept, I think. After the match, the reporters at her press conference and many subsequent opiners immediately zeroed in on whether she would or should retire, interpreting her gestures at the end of the match as a secret signal that she would never play at the Australian Open again. This may be it, they said. In her presser, they hounded and hounded her for a statement about retirement. So much so, she shut down the interview, declared “I am done,” and left the room appearing tearful. That moment and the further speculation in the press got me, one super-sized Serena fan, super-sized pissed off.
I began to reflect on the narrative framing the last few years of Serena’s career—the race to 24, beat Margaret Court—the homophobic villain in the story—the can she do it as a mom, can she have it all, be it all, is the G.O.A.T? Few humans could survive under that pressure, let along thrive. Meanwhile, she has played four grand-slam finals since her return from maternity leave, two semis and one quarterfinal—in four years! Few players on the tour will ever achieve even that much less is her standing ever likely to be touched, the 23 grand slam titles, the doubles-titles, the gold medals, the 73 WTA titles, and on and on and on. And, yet she and we, her fans, feel the pain of the one elusive, so far, accolade: the 24th. Of course, that accolade is false, premised on a false narrative—Margaret Court played prior to the Open era, so what that she won 24 under much less competitive circumstances? Serena need not account for herself to any of us—not the media, not her fans, not the 24ers. She is still playing unbelievable tennis. If she were anyone other than Serena, the talk of retirement would be laughable in the face of her achievements in just the last four years. A player that consistently makes it to the finals, semis, quarterfinals, wins other WTA tournaments on the regular is a super-star on that basis alone.
Our need for a hero, projected onto Serena, through the false narrative of 24 (ride or die), needs to end. Of course, we want to see her silence any critic once and for all. Of course, the power of her will to win, her spirit, inspires us to believe that if you just want it bad enough, anything can happen. But, Serena has nothing left to prove—to herself, to you, to me, to the world. She is the greatest of all time, about that there can be no doubt. But, like any hero, the tension between wanting them to prove it again and waiting for them to fall to the Earth drives the criticism. Were she to take that 24th, then the march to 25 begins, or the could she have surpassed it only if… she didn’t become a mom, she played more when younger (she and Venus took time away from tennis to cultivate other aspects of their lives and were roundly criticized for it), and on and on. We live to love our heroes; we live to take them down. But, not this hero, not this time. Serena can play just as much or as little as she likes, and I am gonna’ watch, grateful for every moment she lets us witness her.
Lori Watson is a Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St Louis. She’s also a Serena Williams super fan.