Modern tennis’s bland new world

As Serena Williams has just discovered, tennis loves characters only for as long as they say the right thing.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

It’s a familiar refrain: modern tennis lacks characters. Nobody doubts that Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal are two of the best players to have ever graced the clay, grass and concrete. Few question the giant strides taken by the women’s game, with the likes of the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova having taken the game to a different level. But despite all that, despite modern players’ sporting brilliance, many sports fans continue to hanker for an earlier, less athletic, less awesome era – a time, that is, when tennis players were characters, when John McEnroe would turn the air blue, when Henri Leconte, his béarnaise belly protuding, would flirt with the ball girls, when Martina Navratilova would smile from East to West.

Today’s players are just so bland, goes the complaint. The years of media training, having blunted any edges, dulled any spark, have left the likes of Nadal or Sharapova unable to express something approaching a personality. They just play tennis. Really, really well. As the 1977 Wimbledon women’s singles champion, Virginia Wade, put it: ‘We’re lucky if our women players say anything illuminating, just a grunt while hitting the ball. Their personalities are reined in by mollycoddling entourages. What’s left are muscular powerhouses, bred to slam balls between baselines with all the power they can muster.’

You’d have thought, then, that Serena Williams’ recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine would have brought a tear to the eye of all those who long for the characterful days of yore. Williams didn’t deal in platitudes, she didn’t dodge questions; instead she just spoke here mind. And out it came: her thoughts on her ex – ‘the guy with the black heart’ – now dating Sharapova, her reflections on high tax rates, and her views, strangely enough, on the Steubenville rape case, in which a 16-year-old girl was filmed while being sexually assaulted by several boys. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, both 16 at the time, were convicted of rape at a juvenile court earlier this year.

‘I’m not blaming the girl’, said Williams, ‘but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that… your parents should teach you — don’t take drinks from other people’. She continued: ‘She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky… Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.’

And what did Williams receive for her candour? Praise for being a sports star willing to say something discomfiting, a big slap on the back from Virginia Wade for escaping her ‘mollycoddling entourage’? No, Williams was met by wall of outrage, a cacophony of excited offence-taking. She can’t say that, went the cry. She’s blaming the girl for being raped, went the logic.

All Williams was really saying was that you should try to avoid putting yourself in dangerous situations. This is not the same as justifying rape. Just as advising someone not to walk through a particular part of town at night does not excuse muggers, so advising someone not to get absolutely inebriated in certain situations does not excuse rapists. Also, when she calls the victim ‘lucky’, all she means is that it could have been worse, which of course it could have been: the girl could have been murdered. Yet what Williams was actually saying didn’t seem to matter. The tone of the comments, not to mention the subject matter, sent certain sections of the illiberal commentariat into a frenzy.

One broadsheet columnist called Williams’ comments ‘disturbing’, before accusing her of being the product of a ‘woman-hating world’. Another complained on behalf of womankind. ‘Williams’ statements hurt plenty of us to our core’, she wrote. Others were content to brand Williams a ‘rape apologist’.

All too predictably, Williams followed the script laid down by the culture of offence and issued an apology (albeit one that implied the journalist was at fault for the writing up of the interview). In doing so she affirmed the sense of rectitude of the offence-takers: Williams can’t say that. Normal service has resumed.

So, the next time you hear someone moan about the lack of characters in professional sport, the absence of people willing to speak honestly and openly, remember that too often this call for outspokenness only extends to those willing to say the right things, to toe the right-thinking line on particular issues. For those that fail to conform, fail to adopt the role-model position, they can expect vilification.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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