July 8, 2008

Williams Sisters Experience Emblematic of Blacks at the Pinnacle of Anything

Bangkok Post : SPORTS PLUS

Pictured left: The Williams sisters playing for the Wimbledon doubles championship. I love the way they look like they are whispering about how they are going to kick their opponents ass Compton style on this next point.

The Williams sisters make their way to the Wimbledon finals, beating everyone before them and racking up impressive stats while doing it, only to get to the final and have their athletic integrity impugned with the suggestion that they rig the contest when they play against each other. Major tennis figures like Navratilova complain about how its disappointing the top seeded players didn't make it to the finals and there is discussion in some quarters about how the ranking system should be changed.

If they could be accused of cheating to get into the final they would be, except not even their worst detractors can argue when they defeat players one on one on the world tennis stage. Instead of being celebrated for their talent, determination and skill, they are damned as often as they are cheered with back handed praise from the likes of Navratilova, who seems oblivious to the racial undertone of her comments at times.

As has often happened in history, when blacks break into an arena they previously have not had the opportunity to compete in and excel, they often find their achievements downplayed or the rules of the game changed in an attempt to re-level the playing field against a paradigm shifting black achiever.

Comparisons of frankly lesser players to the Williams abound, like the ever present debate you find in online forums over who was better, Henin or Venus? Never mind that Henin has no Wimbledon titles and Venus has..uh, FIVE! In fact, the Williams sisters record speaks for itself:

Serena - 8 Slams with 2 Wimbledon titles
Venus - 7 Slams with 5 Wimbledon titles (3rd in the Open Era behind Martina (9) and Steffi (7).
Williams Sisters - 7 Slam titles in doubles with 3 Wimbledons.

Players with this history of accomplishment in the sport however still have to deal with insinuations that their matches between each other are rigged and that their father decides the outcome. That their contests between each other have lacked the intensity of battles against others is true. However, you don't have to impugn their athletic integrity to explain that. They are two siblings who love each other. Who wants to destroy their own sister in front of a world wide audience the way they take down their other opponents? That their prior matches against each other have seemed emotionally ambivalent is no mystery.

With maturity in the game and in their own lives, this Wimbledon final packed all of the intensity and competitiveness we hoped for. But what has impressed me and made me proud in the past and continues to do so is that they remain first and foremost, sisters and family. The game is not more important than their relationship. That this is true has always been an obvious and evident fact. Never perhaps more true than this Wimbledon competition, where their growth as young women and siblings was clearly on display. They asked no quarter, nor gave any in this match. They both wanted it and they played each other hard, with Venus coming out the victor. But the relationship is always there. Venus celebrated less than she would have were her opponent anyone else, and Serena, known for being fiercely competitive and a sore, though sportsmanlike, loser, was surly, but less so than she might have been otherwise. And a short while later, they were on the court together playing for the doubles title with the game faces pictured above in evidence. I would not want to face off across court with the pair in this picture.

I'm proud of their achievements, of the way they have excelled in a tennis world that while it may give them their due, does not do so with any wholehearted grace. But I'm even more proud of how they have held up the banner of black family and sisterhood while in the global spotlight.

What do you think is more impressive about the Williams' tennis career, the tennis achievements or the sisterhood they have displayed on the road to becoming champions?