Twenty-four years ago, on a crisp Halloween evening in Oakland, California, Venus Williams, 14, made her professional debut at the Bank of the West Classic. The phenom-in-training was wearing unbranded clothing, plastic beads on her cornrows and was beaming with the kind of confidence that helped her extend Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, then the №.2 player in the world, to three sets.
Sitting atop a bench in the player’s lounge, watching everyone jockeying for a spot in her sister’s orbit, was 12-year-old Serena Williams. She, too, was sporting beaded cornrows. Unlike her sister, she was also wearing a perpetual scowl on her face. You knew immediately that she wasn’t the kind of kid you wanted to mess with.
Sometimes, even on Halloween, you don’t feel like wearing a mask — especially if you’re getting a little impatient awaiting your turn.
At the time, most of the assembled tennis beat writers would never have guessed that Serena’s game would eventually eclipse that of her big sister’s. A little birdie, however, gave me a hint as to what was to come. Richard Williams, the father and coach of these two young girls whom collectively would help make women’s tennis more relevant than it had ever been, pulled me aside and said:
“She’s going to be the one. She’s got that killer instinct.”
I looked back at Serena, who was still scowling, and nodded my head.
Since Richard’s prophecy that night, Serena has gone on to win 23 Grand Slam titles and is widely considered to be the greatest female athlete of all time. Some folks prefer to call her the “greatest,” without the gender identifier.
The road to becoming the best, however, has often been paved with adversity.
In 2001, Serena and Venus had to endure the taunts of racist fans in Indian Wells, California, who called them niggers. Also, they’ve had to rise above the rumors regarding their “unnatural physicality” — especially after they became the two top players on the WTA tour, and Serena, especially, has had to pack the hopes, dreams and expectations of an entire race in her racket bag because the emotional wellbeing of her Black fans often hinges on the outcome of her matches. And, there was all that noise about players finding their clacking beads distracting.
That’s a lot of baggage.
Up until Saturday afternoon’s U.S. Open women’s final, Serena had done a pretty good job of shouldering that load. But it all became too heavy when the masks came off.
When you’re down a set in a Grand Slam final, and a spunky 20-year-old is standing between you and history, it’s totally natural to be a tad unnerved. Then, after fighting to get back in the match and you’re down a break in the second, you miss a return and take it out on your racket. The chair umpire gives you a point penalty for racket abuse and then adds a code violation for verbal abuse after accusing your coach of making illegal hand signals from the player’s box.
Now that’s what you call a grand slam.
But it wasn’t until Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire, took a game away from Serena after a series of confrontations, that his mask came off. Normally, a frustrated player would have gotten a warning after demolishing a racket, so the latter call was not only disrespectful to one of the sport’s top players, but it helped fuel speculation that gender bias—and perhaps a few other biases — were at play outside the lines.
More important, those calls adversely impacted the results of this historic matchup between two players with an abundance of pigment in their skin. It ruined everyone’s day.
Serena’s opponent in this now controversial match was Naomi Osaka, a biracial player from Japan competing in her first Grand Slam final. She was the first Japanese woman to make it this far at the Open. For Serena, it was all about tying Margaret Court’s long-standing record of 24 Grand Slam title wins.
So, given everything that was at stake, and everything she’s been through this year since returning to the court after her daughter’s birth, it’s absolutely understandable and acceptable that Serena would lose her cool.
But no one is really taking the deeper dive to determine why.
It wasn’t about losing. Osaka outplayed Serena on almost every point and, Alexis’ mother was well aware that Saturday was just not her day. That said, however, had Ramos not assessed her the point and game penalties during that pivotal second set, the Serena we all know and love might have staged another one of her legendary comebacks.
Or maybe not.
Accompanying those questionable penalties, however, were the attacks on Serena’s integrity as a player, a woman, a mother and a champion. She was right to call Ramos a “thief.” He striped Serena of her pride and dignity.
She was robbed.
In that moment, it’s very likely that the horrific memories of Indian Wells came rushing back. As did the excessive random drug tests she’s had to endure throughout her career because some people can’t handle the truth that she truly is a naturally gifted superior athlete. And, she probably thought about all the other unpleasant things that have happened to her and her sister when they were younger, more gifted and undeniably Black. All these memories probably hit her with the force of a tropical hurricane because in that moment, when the masks were being removed, she was reminded that in 2018, maybe her best just hasn’t been good enough to rise above gender and race.
That’s enough to make you want to holler.
Serena’s critics will claim she took it too far on Saturday. I think not. As a six-time U.S. Open singles champion she deserved more respect. And for those who were unable to understand where she was coming from, catch this. She was the one who diffused the situation when fans were booing Osaka during the trophy presentation. She was the one, through her tears, applauding her opponent for her stellar play. Yep, the little girl from Compton with the killer instinct got the crowd to take off their pissy masks and reclaim their decorum.
Now that Serena has had some time to process what went down in Flushing Meadow last weekend, there’s no doubt that she’ll fight back. She always does. Her next battle, however, will be against even tougher opponents as she attempts to unmask an institution whose biases might have kept one woman from reaching her goal and another from enjoying a well-earned victory.
@MikiTurner is an assistant professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg and a frequent EBONY contributor.