I was seated inside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open last week watching Serena Williams beat Madison Keys when I heard a man yelling out with all the righteous indignation he could muster.
“Serena, go back and eat some more mashed potatoes!”
I was momentarily stunned. I paused for a moment to process this hateful – and racist – outburst and then I searched the section to see if I could locate the culprit. I could not. I wasn’t even sure what I was planning to say even if I had spotted him, but I knew this: I was going to say something.
There was a time, not too long ago, when tennis fans – mostly Americans – would boo Serena even while she was playing foreign opponents.
Those days are largely over, I thought, but the hating of Serena, a formidable Black woman and tremendous athlete still seems to live on, even inside a stadium named for one of the greatest tennis players of all time – a Black man, Arthur Ashe.
I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are thrilled that Serena lost the U.S. Open to Italy’s Flavia Pennetta and in in doing so, surrendering her quest to grab hold of history by snagging four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.
I was rooting for Serena and I was crushed when she lost. My aunt, Jean Favors, an avid tennis fan for many years and one of the wisest people I know, was also cheering for Serena – as always – but she offered me some sobering advice when I called to express my disappointment with Serena’s unexpected defeat.
Michael,” she said with a mix of sympathy and resolve, “just let it go.”
Sensible words; but it was a hard pill to swallow. It was as if Serena – the world’s best tennis player – had to prove once again that she is the reigning queen of the sport. Journalists still try to compare her physique to that of an animal’s and she’s still—==— the target of ridicule and racist and sexist attacks. It’s unconscionable.
After Serena won the French Open earlier this year, it only took a matter of minutes before the haters took to social media. She was compared to an animal, likened to a man, and deemed frightening and horrifyingly unattractive.
One Twitter user wrote that Williams “looks like a gorilla and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla.”
I can’t recall these types of racist barbs being hurled at white tennis players.
So I cheered for Serena not just because I wanted to see her win the calendar Grand Slam, I was rooting for her because I wanted her to take her rightful place in history despite the bigots.