Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Serena the “Diva”- It’s a Lazy Narrative

First things first, Serena Williams hasn’t come out of the US Open Final smelling of roses. Having a prolonged session of hurling abuse at an Umpire who has acted in line with the letter of law is never going to be a good idea. Interestingly however, the aftermath of her actions mean that her on court behaviour had an almost prophetic quality. Indeed, Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian referred to “Diva tendencies” when discussing the outburst and that final line of his article proves everything Serena Williams was saying. Men can throw tantrums but women can’t.

Serena reacts angrily to the implied accusations against her

A Signal and Tennis went smash

An alleged signal from a coach in the stands meant Williams was docked a game. For her, this was a slight, an accusation of cheating and whether rightly or wrongly, she felt attacked. Watch tennis and these signals happen all the time. Whether coaches give thumbs up or a knowing nod, to attest that communication with coaches doesn’t happen is naïve. Williams’ point is that highlighting this in a US Open Final is yet another instance where tennis seems to have a problem with the female players the sport took so long to equally remunerate. This was substantiated at the point she lost her cool and broke her racket. A point was docked.

Watching was difficult. Commentary descended into a frenzy of misogyny and a platform had emerged for the “queen and diva narrative” to run free. People and fans are furious but you have to ask why? Dominic Thiem, at the Rome Open in May absolutely obliterated his racket and for that story, Sky Sports commentators commented:

“Broke it in style didn’t he? Not condoning it, but you can understand his frustration.”

Not once was Thiem branded histrionic. Not once was he accused of ruining the match. More disturbingly, compare the silence that this was met with compared with Serena’s passionate display. Thiem smashing his racket wasn’t news. Nobody questioned the impact this behavior was having on his opponent and instead his behavior was celebrated as some sort of display of passion and frustration. The narrative was sympathetic.

Things were to get worse. As Serena’s frustrations manifested, she verbally abused the umpire, calling him a “thief” and was unduly docked an entire game.

Compound fracture

Consider for one moment the compound element of what happened. In the very same tournament, an umpire imposed a code violation on Alizé Cornet for having the audacity to change her shirt. Nadal regularly does this and is greeted with whoops of delight from the crowd and sheepish grins. Consider also, that Williams was informed she would not be allowed in future to wear the black catsuit she wore at Roland Garros this year – despite the fact that her outfit was designed, in part, to control muscle movement that resulted from her emergency C-section delivery of her first child, at 36, last September.

Compare this with the regularity at which the male form in sport is exposed as a result of lycra technology, keeping our favourite sports stars injury free through the wonders of compression.

Serena is right. The narratives do not tally up and it isn’t fair.

Matters into her own hands

Partly why the outburst has generated such shock is because Williams has voiced a pretty uncomfortable truth. No matter how well we think we are doing in promoting women’s sports, we only put on certain shoes when they fit. There are still miles to go. In isolation, Williams was wrong. Indeed even considering all of the above, there were better ways to go about this. But the furious response of the media and those most stung by her revelations means that it’s hard to conclude that Serena when the bigger picture is considered is wrong. McEnroe, the loveable rogue built a career off challenging Umpires. Agassi called an umpire a “Son of a b*tch”. Yet here we are, most stung because a woman had the audacity to do the same.

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