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Tribute to Serena Williams

Serena Williams

There have been so many reminders in the past few months that racism remains alive in America that it is worth celebrating an occasion of its transcendence. I am referring to the announcement that Serena Williams, likely to be remembered as the greatest woman tennis player ever, has announced her return to the Indian Wells tournament after a 14 year boycott.

Beyond her consummate skill and competitive exploits as a durable champion, I have always found Serena gracious, humble, generous to her opponents, full of fun, and as magnetic off the court as she is domineering and fierce while playing.
 
The boycott was her reaction to a hostile crowd reaction in Indian Wells back in 2001 when an injury to her sister, Venus, led to her withdrawal from a semifinal match in the tournament when they were scheduled to play one another. Many in the crowd assumed that the cancellation was arranged between the siblings, and shouted racist taunts from the stands during the finals that were directed at her father and then coach, Richard Williams and Venus when they entered the stadium to watch Serena play.

Despite the taunting by the crowd, accompanied by racist slurs, Serena nevertheless prevailed in the match. She calls this experience one of the darkest in her long career, remembering the many tears that she shed after it was over, and being reminded at the time of her father’s stories of growing up amid a racist atmosphere in the South. She recollects her feelings with these words: “I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.” Her boycott of Indian Wells seemed both self-protective, and in a sense punitive, depriving this high profile tournament of two of its star attractions (as Venus also refused to play).
 
In a story in the NY Times (Feb 4, 2014) written by Christopher Clarey, Serena explains her decision as partly prompted by a film on the life of Nelson Mandela that taught her the healing benefits of forgiveness. It was this sentiment that she mentions as the basis of the decision, which was enthusiastically welcomed in the most affirming way by those tennis officials associated with the tournament, including its billionaire sponsor, Oracle chief Lawrence Ellison. Of course, a cynic would dismiss this kind of reaction as purely driven by commercial considerations, giving the tournament at Indian Wells to be played in March 2015 greater prestige and commercial success.

Undoubtedly these motives were in the mix, but I believe that for mainstream America there has been an important shift away from the sort of racist responses that Serena Williams encountered in 2001. Call it ‘political correctness’ or a change of heart, but I believe it exhibits a deeper cultural appreciation that this form of racism directed at African Americans is no longer ethically, socially, and politically acceptable. Of course, to some extent this brand of racism has been displaced and replaced by a new racist menace, that of Islamophobia.
 
By returning to Indian Wells Serena Williams has made the double point of at once acknowledging the pain of her past victimization and the healing power of forgiveness. It is one more stage in her remarkable journey that started in the harshness of the racially segregated and impoverished Compton neighborhood Los Angeles. It is a journey that is personally moving for me.

My mother was a highly ranked tennis player for fifteen years at a time when African Americans were excluded altogether, and also making me aware of the rigors of training and discipline that such a life of athletic dedication requires. Beyond this, for me tennis (and squash) was my daily therapy for many decades, and the source of several enduring friendships—certainly cheaper, more enjoyable, and even more effective than what most professional therapists have to offer. And so I take this moment to thank Serena Williams for who she is and what she has done for herself, and for all of us, especially for those of us who love the game of tennis.


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