© Ella Ling


Racism in tennis


Usually, when people talk about about racism in tennis, they’re talking about sections of the audience (right there in the stadium or at home in front of the television) holding prejudices about some of the players. That was reversed in the Californian desert, with a player reportedly making a racism comment about the spectators at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, with Michael Llodra fined $2,500 for turning on two fans and calling them “f—— Chinese”.

There is no doubt that tennis players and tennis enthusiasts are generally an educated, cosmopolitan and worldly bunch. But no one ought to imagine that tennis is free of racism.

Those new to tennis may be looking for explanations, for example, why Serena Williams is not in California this week. And why she has not played in Indian Wells for more than a decade. It was in the spring of 2001, at that tournament, that the Williams family believed that they were being racially abused by some of the spectators. Venus had withdrawn from the all-Williams semi-final just 10 minutes before the match. During the final against Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, Serena was jeered and booed, and she considered that it had been racially-motivated.

Their father Richard claimed that he and Venus had been called “niggers” by members of the crowd as they made their way to their seats. “When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me nigger,” Richard said at the time. “One guy said: ‘I wish it was ’75 [a reference to the 1975 Los Angeles race riots]; we’d skin you alive’.” The Williams family have boycotted the tournament ever since; for Serena and Venus, the springtime hard-court swing always starts on the East Coast, in Miami.

There was, however, an incident at the Miami tournament a few years ago when a male spectator called out during one of Serena’s matches: “Hit it in the net like any negro would.” She was understandably disturbed and upset, and asked for man to be ejected from the stadium (he was). You may also recall the occasion that Serena was whistled by the crowd at the French Open, and the suggestions at the time that it could have racially-motivated – that prompted an article in The Guardian suggesting that ‘Tennis is racist – it’s time we did something about it’.

The author suggested that the white middle classes in the stands would prefer their champions to be Caucasian. “Although Venus and Serena get a warm reception at Wimbledon, the fact is there are few brown or black faces in the crowd, and little understanding or sympathy for what it is like to be black from spectators, commentators or tennis reporters. For the great majority, the sisters are from an alien world compared with their white opponents.

“The extraordinary thing is that this is hardly ever written or said. As race courses through the veins of tennis, people pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead the Williams sisters, together with their father, are subjected to a steady stream of criticism, denigration, accusation and innuendo: their physique is somehow an unfair advantage (those of Afro descent are built differently), they are arrogant and aloof (they are proud and self-confident), they are not popular with the other players (they come from a very different culture and, let us not forget, there is plenty of evidence of racism among their colleagues).”

“And Richard, a man of some genius, is painted as a ridiculous and absurd figure, match-fixer, svengali and the rest of it. Most racism – especially middle-class racism – is neither crude nor explicit but subtle and nuanced, masquerading as fair comment about personal qualities rather than the prejudice it is.”

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a French player who has played in an Australian Open final, once told me he occasionally receives racist letters in the post. “I get some letters from a lot of people. Sometimes it’s nice, with letters from kids or from parents of kids who want to be tennis players, but I also get racist letters. It’s really painful to receive something like that because you’re not ready for that. You think to yourself, ‘That’s really bad’. But I realise that there are people like that.” But as Tsonga said of racists: “Stupidity cannot be controlled, only contained.”

You wonder how Tsonga felt when he heard what Llodra did in the desert. But Llodra’s comments – the Candian journalist Tom Tebbutt, who heard it all, rightly called the Frenchman’s behaviour “deplorable” – was a rare example of racial prejudice in the locker-room. People may point to the story of Lleyton Hewitt and the linesman at the US Open – during a match against the African-American James Blake he asked for a black official to be removed – but the Australian always said that he was misunderstood.

If tennis has a racism problem, it’s mainly in the stands, not on the court.

  • Marg Shaw

    Are you kidding me? You wrote this without mentioning what (rare) black, world class pro tennis coach Morris King Jr. has been enduring for ALL of his professional coaching career? None of those listed in your article have had to endure or suffer what he has had to endure or suffer for so long. Yet no mention of him in an article about racism in tennis!

    The racist practices against him first came to light with the article or expose’ that was introduced in 1999 at http://www.protennisexpose.net. Then there is his recent December 2011 interview “Exclusive Interview with Williams Sisters Ex-Coach: Racism in USTA Coach Hiring” that is located at http://supermansports.com/2011/12/16/exclusive-interview-with-williams-sisters-ex-coach-racism-in-usta-coach-hiring/. 

    The first article or expose’ talks about how his top players were being stolen from him using the race card (his being black) to accomplish the thefts as well as many other horrific incidents.

    That last interview is exhaustive and he talks about 3 out of court settlements by the United States Tennis Association for its racial practices that have been hidden from public view as well as his lawsuit against the University of North Florida for discriminatory hiring practices in the selection of Head Tennis Coaches. He talks about how tennis touring pros won’t give even a try-out to an accomplished black pro tennis coach, while giving 2 – 3 weeks try-outs to white coaches of lesser accomplishment.

    Suddenly a player makes a reference to an Asian fan and the world is on fire, but this has been going on against a black coach for years and nothing has gone viral about it except the silence.

    I know! You didn’t know about him, did you? There is always plausible deniability when it comes to racist practices against blacks.

    Marg Shaw

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FDTATVO6ATOYE3FJ2LNRZ54HQE may

      i believe this article was focused at the reverse racism in which a professional behaved inappropriately, rather than the usual small minded idiotic fan garbage directed at professionals.
      it’s good that you have pointed out this case of prejudice and Mr Morris King Jr’s struggles, but to suggest black people are the only ethnic group exposed to racist practice and plausible deniabilty would be a clouded judgement. To think, this article would be much larger if Llodra directed his insults about a black women.

      • Marg Shaw

        Mate, did you read my comment or are you responding to that little voice in your head? 

        My comment dealt with the needed inclusion of Coach King, NOT the exclusion of anyone else where the author cited examples of victims of racism in tennis.

        What the Chinese victim of Llorda’s unfair and unfortunate outburst has had to suffer in comparison to Coach King is nothing close; the same even goes for the other cited examples. For you to spin or twist my words, even adding things that were never said, smells of a sociopathic manipulation.

        Try dealing with the words that were actually written and keep your, own, paranoia against black victims of racism out of it. 

        Now, has that little voice shut up yet?

  • Roger Stapp

    What about the racism dished out Serena and Venus to fellow white players. Those two act like they are better than everyone. They only win because they are the size of men. They would have got their butts kicked in the 80’s. the Williams sisters are two of the most racist people in tennis I have ever seen.

    • Kevin Jenkins

      You are excuse ridden…

      Playing any sport at the highest level requires a unique combination superior intelligence and athletic ability. Yet, without hard work and dedication it doesn’t matter how intelligent or how physically gifted an athlete…THEY WILL FAIL TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS if they do not put in the time and work required to achieve greatness. Without question, the Williams sisters worked extremely hard to be regarded as two of the greatest women’s tennis players in the history of the sport.

      I commend Mr. Richard Williams and his wife for their hard word and dedication to their family.

    • BlackCeaser

      You are either a troll or just an extremely ignorant individual. Either way, I won’t provide any further comment or response to your nonsense. I hope that everyone else will stay clear of you as well.