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 Venus had withdrawn from the all-Williams semi-final just 10 minutes before the match.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.