Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dark instincts vs. brightly colored rewards

Psychologists have long been fascinated with the question of human motivation. Why do we do the things we do? How do we become motivated to do such things in the first place? How do we sustain interest and motivation over time? And how is it that we often see motivation as a quality of character, such that we describe some individuals as motivated and others as not? What informs the conclusions that we make regarding whether or not someone is motivated? It’s a pretty complex issue, non?

In reaction to the Freudians who perceived motivation as a product of unconscious instincts, behavioral psychologists conceptualized motivation as merely a collection of responses to the right stimuli. In fact, for several years, starting in the 1950’s, this behavioral perspective dominated. Behavioral psychology successfully marketed the notion that motivation was the net result of the right kind of reward system. Human motivation, they argued, was the mere product of behavioral conditioning.

I can’t overstate how this perspective influenced approaches to parenting. It also profoundly affected the way coaches taught tennis. It was assumed that the best tennis students would be those who could be conditioned to repeatedly hit balls. Nothing else explains the phenomenon of tennis factories, warehouses in which tennis success became the product and young children the unsuspecting blank slates that could be shaped and molded into achievement.

Andre Agassi perfectly captures this world in his autobiography, “Open”. Agassi describes living essentially inside a tennis concentration camp. At least that’s how it may have seemed from the perspective of the young boy uprooted from his family and planted in the glades of Florida. And in this tennis factory, players are given the occasional reward of visiting the local mall. Once Agassi’s talent became clear, he is given other rewards, such as being able to skip class.

Of course all systems that are based on rewards often include elements of punishment. And so the young Agassi is made to scrub toilets for certain infractions. Rewards and punishments, the hallmarks of a view of motivation that is based essentially on a view of human nature as malleable, capable of being shaped and formed, suspect to manipulation and parental control. The child is not allowed to have a mind of her own.

There are still today many tennis parents who hold to this view. To get their sons and daughters to play tennis, they offer them all kinds of rewards for continued effort. But many adult players who felt manipulated into playing tennis end up giving up the sport altogether. Or if they stick around, there is often an element of bitterness in their attitude. Tennis becomes just a distasteful job. There’s no joy in it whatsoever.

And I must admit that I have always worried about this when it comes to the William sisters. I don’t know how Richard motivated them to play tennis, but he made it clear from the beginning that his own motives were financial. And once his daughters achieved financial success, he wondered out loud why they were still playing tennis. He predicted that they would both retire quickly and live on their millions. And for a while there it looked as if he was right. It seemed as if the sisters became more interested in everything but tennis.

But then a curious thing happened. The sisters started playing tennis on their own terms. They played as often or as infrequently as they wanted to play. They played Fed Cup, or didn’t. They floundered from one interest to another. And then they seemed to re-commit to tennis. On their own terms of course. Next thing you know, they’re #s 1 and 2 in the world.

In the sisters’ actions can be seen the essence of our current understanding of psychological motivation. It’s called intrinsic motivation. Or self-determination.

The theory of self-determination maintains that motivation develops from within us. Not from dark instinctual places as argued by the Freudians. And not as a by-product of external shaping as claimed by the behaviorists. Motivation flows from a basic human need to develop our skills and abilities, to act on our own accord, and to remain connected with others and with our environment. And I will try to explain in Part 3 of this series why this theory more than any other explains why I believe that Federer is still motivated to achieve great things.

(Part 2 of 3)

July 04, 2010 - 06125181 date 03 07 2010 Copyright imago Paul Room Tennis The Wimbledon Championships 2010 London Serena Williams USA women Tennis WTA Tour All England Championships Wimbledon London Single happiness cheering Highlight premiumd Vdig xmk 2010 vertical.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The motivation question (Part 1 of 3)

I’ve often wondered what keeps particular tennis players motivated. Motivation is one of those psychological characteristics that seems to remain dynamic throughout a tennis player’s sporting life. The level of motivation may change depending on the player’s stage of his of her career. It may wax and wane with the seasons and surface changes. It may be as ephemeral as the wind, or may endure and persist with the passage of time.

I was inspired to think about the question of motivation after reading a recent BBC article about Merlene Ottey. I can think of no better example of the type of motivation that persists and endures, like fine wine.

When Ottey was 40, she was accused of having bullied her way onto the Jamaica team to represent that country at the Sydney Olympics. Ottey had run fourth in the qualifying event and therefore should have been disqualified. So when the Jamaica Amateur Athletics Association (JAAA) made the bold decision to replace the much younger Peta-Gaye Dowdie with 40-year-old Ottey, a lot of people were displeased. The displeasure was expressed loudly and harshly. Ottey was criticized as an aging athlete who couldn’t let go. And when she ended up placing fourth in the 100m dash in Sydney, there was a lot of egg both on her face as well as on that of members of the JAAA who had supported her bid to represent Jamaica.

But of course all good stories always have an interesting twist. That race was won by Marion Jones who was subsequently stripped off all medals and incarcerated for illegal drug use. Ottey was therefore retroactively granted a bronze medal. So she did win after all. (Fellow Jamaican, Tayna Lawrence was promoted to silver and Greece’s Ekaterini Thanou was given the gold).

But Ottey was deeply hurt by what she perceived as her home country’s lack of supportiveness of her continued motivation to race. In a 2005 article in the Jamaican Observer, she is quoted as saying: “After Sydney I said I wasn't going to run another race for Jamaica ... because I felt like the Jamaicans were trying to push me out of the sport and I really needed to prove my point, that I might be 40 but I can still run.”

Apparently Ottey still feels this way at age 50. She plans to race at the European Championships next week. Since 1998 she has worked with a Slovenian coach, but in 2002, she gave up her Jamaican citizenship and became a Slovenian citizen as well. She continues to represent her new country in international events. And she will be a member of its 4 X 100m relay team at the European Championships races.

How to explain that kind of motivation? How is it that some sports men and women have the courage to just keep going, while others start flaming out the minute they start making a little bit of money? Notice that I am choosing not to address the issue of sexism in the Ottey story. And in part this is because I think that ageism is the larger issue. Aging sports men also face cries for their retirement. A lot of folks were irritated by Brett Le Favre not because he lacks ability but because they think that at his age, he should be staying home and helping his wife. It’s as if we think that athletes should have a ‘use by’ date, and when they stick around past this date, we don’t know what to do with them. I’ve written about this before in an entry I called “Defending Mrs. Davenport”. I’m writing about it again, but not from the ageist angle, but to address the question of motivation.

Ottey may have been my starting point but tennis is always my destination. And of course I am particularly thinking of Federer as I watch his gentle slide down the ranks. Having failed to defend both his French Open and Wimbledon points, he is now ranked # 3, right behind Novak Djokovic. That must hurt. If he fails to defend his US open points, he may slide past Andy Murray and Robin Söderling on his way down. The very thought of that must gall.

But doing something about this requires the kind of motivation that I have to objectively wonder if Federer still has. He recently tweeted about celebrating his twins first birthday. That is wonderful. But how compatible is Daddy Federer with the ambitious tennis champ who has broken Sampras’ record for the most number of Slam wins? And how motivated is he to still achieve more?

June 30, 2010 - Wimbledon, United Kingdom - epa02230947 Roger Federer of Switzerland gives a post match press conference following his defeat by Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in their quarter final match for the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, in London, Britain, 30 June 2010.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A weekend supporting tennis sponsors, sort of

A friend of mine recently remarked that for all my talk of supporting tennis, he has never seen me consciously make the decision to support tennis sponsors. Sure I buy tennis rackets (and I have a bone to pick with Steffi and Andre about that piece of crap called 'the Youtek Three Star' that Head put out with their ringing endorsement -- but I digress). Sure you buy tennis rackets and balls, my friend observed, but have you ever driven a Kia? Or decided to write only with Pilot pens? Do you put your money where your mouth is when it comes to supporting tennis sponsors?

Well I have to admit that he stopped me cold. Not just me, but the group of women I was with at the ale house. We’d gotten into a habit of ending some scorching Saturday afternoon tennis sessions by downing a few at a local sports pub. That Saturday he decided to join us. And he threw down the gauntlet regarding tennis sponsorship. For a sport to survive, he bellowed self-importantly, fans have to be willing to put their money where their mouth is. They have to buy the products that tennis sponsors sell!

Are you asking me to buy that piece of crap shoe that opened up on Guga’s feet on the tennis court, one of my friends wondered. We giggled hysterically. And then started throwing out ideas of products we wouldn’t be caught dead in. Like anything worn recently by Maria Sharapova. I suppose I could always order a Sham-Wow, another friend remarked, I always see them advertising on the Tennis Channel. We carried on like this until the next pitcher arrived.

The man became increasingly irritated. Here we were making fun of his idea when he was being totally serious. In part to pacify him, I suggested an experiment. How about if we spent the rest of the weekend making every single purchase about tennis? How about a weekend of total immersion in supporting tennis sponsorship?

My girlfriends giggled nervously. They looked at me as if I had lost my mind. The boyfriend slapped the table and bellowed his support. He gets loud when he’s had a few.

I said, in that case let’s make the next pitcher Stella Artois beer. Too easy. It was the rest of the weekend that proved to become unbelievably hard. Full disclosure -- I didn’t make it past Saturday night.

The first problem was that I had forgotten I had to get my hair done. Could I give money to a hairdresser? The good news was that my bank is a tennis sponsor, so withdrawing cash was no problem. But how to spend it? Were there any hair care companies that support tennis? I combed the internet to find out. And sure enough discovered that Garnier Nutrisse have indeed sponsored tennis. Come to think of it, I still have samples of their sunscreen that I collected at the US Open. And if I say so myself, I didn’t do a bad job. My roots no longer looked jaded. So far so good.

I had plans to meet a co-worker to go to the movies. Neither of us had seen Avatar and had decided to belatedly catch it at the cheap show. Sure we could rent the DVD but we wanted to see what all the fuss was about on a big screen with 3-D glasses.

But did James Cameron support tennis? I mean the man has millions and can easily start his own tournament. But what did seeing blue people with tails have to do with tennis? And could I even pay for the damn 3-D glasses? (How soon before that gets introduced to tennis TV coverage? What a potentially cool idea! You read it here first folks).

This plan was turning into a wreck before my eyes. In fact, the more I sobered up, the more implausible it seemed. Again I turned to Google for assistance. Not a damn thing. The impression I got of these blue people was that they never played any games at all. Unless you call taming dragons a game. Dragons that could kill them. Not to mention all the time they seem to spend busy fighting off human invaders. ¡Ay, caramba!

Clearly this drunken decision was not going to work. I’d have to re-think it another day when I was stone cold-sober. Or maybe I should have been guided more by the spirit of my friend’s suggestion, than by the literalness of it. Support tennis by supporting its sponsors, when you can. And, in my case, not just when buying the next pitcher of beer.

It served me right that the cinema was out of 3-D glasses. And I still don’t see what all the fuss was about. The man plain old ripped off the Bible, and every damn African legend.

INDIAN WELLS,CA- MARCH 11: Chanda Rubin of the USA and Anastasia Myskina from Russia open the door of a Whirlpool refrigirator filled with tennis balls as Larry Scott Chairman and CEO of the WTA Tour looks on at the announcement of Whirlpool as the WTA premiere European sponsor at the Pacific Life Open on March 11, 2004 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Those who can’t, teach?

Before I manage to piss off any teachers who happen to be reading this blog, let me go on the record and state that I have nuff respect for teachers. Some of my best friends are teachers. Almost every single member of my extended family was or is a school teacher. I once slept with a teacher. Many times actually. And besides, I myself have spent time in that honorable profession. Teaching.

But enough about me. This article is actually about Scoville Jenkins, and my uncertainty about how to feel about his decision to take a job as the Assistant Coach at Kennesaw State College, Michigan.

In my history of being obsessed with everything tennis, Scoville Jenkins remains the only tennis player for whom I flew all the way to Costa Rica. Now granted I also went to see that beautiful country and have my first experience of sliding down tree tops. But I also went to see Scoville. The event was the Copa Del Café. He didn’t win. But I witnessed first hand his tremendous talent as a Junior.

But sadly, that talent never translated into making a dent on the pro ATP tour. After six years of trying, his highest rank was 198 on the singles tour. That was in 2006. He won the 2004 USTA Hardcourt Juniors title, but has never won a title on the ATP tour. I’m not sure where things went wrong for him. Or maybe they didn’t go wrong so much as they just didn’t go right. Certainly he had his share of injuries. But Phil Dent and Jo Wilfred Tsonga both returned from major back surgery to perform well on the tour. No, the sad truth is that after a while, Jenkins started becoming a bit of an also-ran, just another straggler (or struggler) on the tour.

I like the way psychologists have penetrated the world of tennis. I like that young kids are now being taught psychological techniques of success right along with how to hit topspin lobs. But I would be hard-pressed to say that Jenkins’ problems were mental. The teenager I saw in Costa Rica was a talented, confident, almost cocky individual. And I have long been a defender of cockiness of any kind on the tour. The meek shall not inherit crap.

And now apparently Jenkins has thrown in the towel. Well not entirely, as he has made commitments to World Team Tennis as well as to some exhibition matches. But at age 24, he seems to be signaling that his best years as a player may be behind him. And he may be right. But part of me thinks that he’s still only 24. Success in later years is possible, isn‘t it? Agassi did it. So did Jonas Bjorkman. Why not Scoville Jenkins?

Instead Jenkins has accepted a job as the understudy to the men’s tennis coach of the Kalamazoo Owls. Clearly he seems to be signaling a change in career direction. And frankly, if his eventual goal is to become the go-to coach for winning NCAA teams (and I hope it is), starting off as the apprentice to a successful mentor is exactly the way to go about it. The best teachers are always those who never get tired of learning and who know how and when to humble themselves and become students again.

But as I write this I find myself also thinking of Jamaica’s Dustin Brown. I also once traveled to Jamaica to see him play in Davis Cup. It wasn’t as long a trip but my intentions were just as honorable. And what I saw in Brown was a much more naturally talented version of Jenkins. With just as much cockiness and attitude.

Brown too recently floated the idea of making a change, not away from tennis but towards a country with more resources to support him than Jamaica. He invoked British grandparents as his reason for thinking of divorcing reggae and going British.

I have no clue why Brown would skip his birth country of Germany and instead offer the teaser of playing for England. But I found the timing of his desire for change to be a bit late. If he was going to go this route, shouldn’t he have done it some five or six years ago? Why persist with Jamaica for so long only to give up when you’ve finally broken into the top 100? Is he thinking that that in itself makes him a more attractive trade? Or was he just jealous that Jamaicans didn’t stop trying to catch that bandit and throw him the kind of party that only the much adored Usain Bolt manages to receive?

Whatever the reasons, I find myself having entirely different reactions to the decision-making of these two men, despite their only 1.5 years age difference. The one seems to be giving up too soon, while the other seems to be making the change way too late.

NEW YORK - AUGUST 31: Scoville Jenkins serves to Rafael Nadal of Spain during the second round of the US Open at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park on August 31, 2005 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In search of Rafa’s belly-button

Right about now Spain is feeling all kinds of wonderful. And my Venezuelan abuelita is probably turning over in her grave that I dared to go against Paul the Prognosticating Pulpo and voted for a giant-toppling Netherlands victory. If she were still alive she would probably slap me upside the head with a chancla. And I would deserve it too. I mean who roots against Spain when you have watered-down Spanish blood flowing through your own veins?

Well actually I didn’t root against Spain. I rooted for the Netherlands. It’s not the same thing. Besides, anyone who has been reading this blog recently knows that I have had giant-toppling on the brain. I make no apologies for that.

I had an insight recently that this obsession with giant-toppling must be because I may be unconsciously preparing myself for Federer’s decline. Not that I expect this to happen overnight but, like every human being, you get to a point where you start realizing that your best years are behind you and that whatever good happens in the future is just a sweet bonus. Why else would Federer be caught dead out in public with Mirza looking all kinds of horrible in a bikini? I am so embarrassed for her that I refuse to reprint the photo. Let me just acknowledge my anticipatory grieving.

But I digress.

I really intended in this entry to focus on why La España must be feeling on top of the world right about now. And actually, if she is honest, La España would admit that her good feelings actually started when her supposedly clay-loving compañero won Wimbledon and ascended to the top of the rankings, all while relying on his only good knee.

Although I am beginning to wonder whether  Rafa may have taken a page out of Mr. DampAss’ PR book and may be guilty of spreading misleading missives about the status of his health. Remember when Sampras vomited on court only to turn around and spank the butt off the original Spanish export, Alex Corretja? But again, I digress.

What I really intended to write about was the location of Rafa’s belly-button. I was inspired by reading about a recent study led by a Duke University professor named Andre Bejan who concluded that the location of the belly-button is the key to understanding sporting success.

Bejan and his colleagues set out to understand why Black sport-persons seemed to be better at running while Whites did better in the water. They examined over 100 years of sporting records and came to the conclusion that it all came down to the location of the “ombligo” (or belly-button for those of you not lucky enough to have had a Venezuelan abuelita).

Bejan at al explain that the ombligo is the center of gravity of the body. In runners of African descent, the navel is apparently located higher because runners have longer legs. For swimmers, the belly-button is located lower because Caucasians generally have shorter legs but longer torsos than Africans. In fact, Black belly-buttons are generally located three centimeters (1.18 inches) higher than white belly-buttons.

I have no idea if this has any relevance to World Cup which came down to two white teams and an octopus. But I can’t help but wonder if it applies to Rafa. Maybe Rafa flummoxes everyone on the tour (except Söderling on a good day) because of the location of his ombligo? Is it high? Low? Does it matter? 

It may not. But I personally intend to spend the next few months scoping out the shirtless pictures of as many male tennis players as possible in order to settle this issue once and for all. My intentions are purely scientific of course. 

In keeping with the empirical nature of my inquiry, I would first need to measure the exact distance between the top of the pubic hair and the navel. Then I will use SPSS to determine if there is a statistically significant relationship between navel location and tennis ability. Of course, in keeping with the option of qualitative research, it would help if I could also examine some of my subjects personally. After all, it's not as if I intend to hire any research assistants.

31376, PARIS, FRANCE - Sunday May 31, 2009. Rafael Nadal (Spain, pink shirt) lost for the first time in Roland-Garros, beaten by Robin Soderling (Sweden) in 4 sets. French Open 2009, Internationaux de France 2009, held at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris. Photograph: Juan Soliz, PacificCoastNews.com

Friday, July 9, 2010

Will the Vuvuzela make a US Open appearance?

One of the more hilarious misapplications of the vuvuzela appears in a video put out by Deadspin blog. The author of this hysterical entry inserts the annoying sound of the vuvuzela into several iconic cultural and historical moments, such as Bill Clinton enunciating portentously “I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman”, or OJ Simpson trying on the infamous glove at his trial. The video is must-see creativity. I can think of so many tennis moments for which the punctuation of the vuvuzela would be most apt. Can you imagine Serena’s US Open tirade being accompanied by vuvuzela? Just the thought of it is cracking me up.

Even folks who did not follow World Cup and know nothing of the death threats now being dispatched towards Paul the prognosticating octopus, even folks who quit watching the World Cup after the US lost to Ghana -- just about everyone who is anyone knows about the ascendance of the African vuvuzela. Some believe that it destroyed the World Cup. It certainly interfered with ESPN coverage at certain moments, not that ESPN really seemed to care about World Cup after the US folded to Ghana.

But the vuvuzelas did not trouble me in the slightest. After all, I grew up on conch shells gleefully sounding out as Brian Lara scored another century. I can recall cricket matches that spontaneously turned into mini Carnival parades with loud music and even louder horns, as the Windies celebrated a victory. So, no, vuvuzelas do not bother me in the slightest.

For the uninformed, vuvuzelas are a stadium horn common to South Africa. Like most things that have gained unexpected popularity, there is now fierce debate over who exactly invented the vuvuzela. A South African named Freddie “Saddam” Maake said that he fashioned an aluminum version of the vuvuzela in 1965 from a bicycle horn; he has photos supporting this claim. Most agree that the Masincedance Sport factory popularized the vuvuzela by selling mass quantities of a plastic version. But not to be outdone, the Nazareth Baptist Church has claimed that the instrument belongs to their Church. Many believe that the traditional vuvuzela was fashioned from a kudu (antelope) horn and was used to summon villagers to community gatherings.

Whatever its origins, the vuvuzela has become a soccer staple in South Africa. The word vuvuzela stems from the Zulu language or Nguni dialect meaning to make a vuvu sound. And thanks to World Cup, people have started ‘vuvu-ing’ at all kinds of sporting and public events. The vuvuzela even made several appearances during July 4th celebrations!

No surprise then that in the pristine and conservative halls of Wimbledon, someone rushed to decide that vuvuzelas were not welcome. Once the Queen and her people got wind of the fact that vuvuzelas were selling in London like hot cakes (or fish and chips, take your choice), they dispatched a missive that vuvuzelas or anything thing noisy (other than Serena, Venus, and Sharapova) were not welcome at Wimbledon.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded it if someone had blasted a vuvuzela once Serena hit match point at Wimbledon. Those are the moments for which annoying repetitive sound devices were invented. Instead Serena had to cut short her celebration and rush to get ready for the post-match ceremony. And nobody puts a post-match ceremony together faster than the folks at the All England Club. You could tell they were raised on tea and scones, not on unruly conch shells and vuvuzelas.

So let me go on the record and say that I wouldn’t mind it if a few vuvuzelas showed up at the US open. Now it can only be just a few, and only for the night matches. But because the annoying sound of this instrument would carry all the way to the Triboro bridge, I would suggest that they should only be allowed during the semi finals and finals when no other matches are being played. And vuvuzela players must be strictly trained on when and how to burst into noise.

For example, in Trinidad during the Carnival steel-pan competitions, noisemakers are allowed into the stadium. But everyone understands that they cannot make a sound while the performers are doing their bit. But in between performances, as the steel-pans are being wheeled and pushed off stage, and the next band is setting up, it’s every vuvuzela for itself. The racket from the stands can be cacophonous if you’re listening from afar, but if you’re in the audience, you start to detect that there is a rhythm and cadence to the sounds. But everything stops the minute the band on stage signals that it is ready to perform. In other words, I wouldn’t mind hearing a vuvuzela or two during changes of end. Or when someone challenges a line call and Hawk-eye proves they’re right.

(PS: To hell with Paul, go Netherlands!!!!) :-)

June 24, 2010 - Kapstadt, S DAFRIKA - NIEDERL NDISCHE FANS FEIERN DEN 2:1 SIEG DER NIEDERLANDE GEGEN KAMERUN BEIM PUBLIC VIEWING AUF DEM FANFEST IN KAPSTADT./ 240610 / 2010 / KAPSTADT / S DAFRIKA / AFRIKA / SPO / FUSSBALL / FIFA WM / WM2010 / WELTMEISTERSCHAFT / KAMERUN VS NIEDERLANDE / CMR VS NED / FUSSBALLFANS / FANS / TRACHT / ORANGE / VUVUZELA / TRINKEN BIER / ..action press/Piffel  .Public viewing in Cape Town at the FIFA World Cup during the match of Cameroon vs Netherlands (1:2), June 24, 2010, South Africa.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Caster, Serena, and the defense of strong women

I feel sick for Caster Semenya. What a horrible, humiliating, nightmarish experience to have gone through, only to have the IAAF say oops, we bad, sorry, carry on. To be fair, let me quote the IAAF’s full statement:

“The process initiated in 2009 in the case of Caster Semenya has now been completed. The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect. Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment on the matter.”

Are you fricking kidding me? They destroy a young runner’s life by casting public and humiliating doubts about her sexual identity, and then dismiss their grotesque destruction of her life by saying, oops, carry on. Just like that? No apology, no  explanation, no details? Just, hey Caster, you can go back to running now?

This is wrong in so many ways. And of course part of why this story has gripped my attention is because I remember clearly the awful comments that Venus and Serena attracted when they first started playing tennis. The notion that femininity could be combined with strength and power seemed to be a novel idea to many tennis fans.

In the early days of the sisters’ ascendancy, insinuations regarding their sexual identity became very common on tennis message boards. It’s still the easiest way for fans and non-fans to engage in brutal verbal battles. Wordplays on Venus’ alleged ‘penis’ were common, as were aspersions regarding Serena’s masculinity. Some message boards folded up and disappeared in response to the barrage of hate.

Things only worsened as the sisters began to dominate the sport. Criticizing their appearance became the way to put them down. The insinuation was that the sisters must really be men masquerading as women on the WTA tour. Indeed, for some non Williams fans, references to the sister’s “strength” and “power” were meant to imply that the sisters could play brute power tennis and nothing else. Jut like men.

And to be fair, the sisters did little to help the situation both with their us vs. them attitude (however understandable under the circumstances), and with some of their early comments. Like when Serena reportedly said that she could take a set off of any man in the top ten, or something to that effect (ancient history; you look it up). Or when they challenged a male player who soundly thrashed them  both back to back. To be fair, they did not always seem interested in winning friends and influencing people.

The good news is that it has become much rarer to hear some of these ugly aspersions against the sisters. They might still be called manly but few people would be caught accusing either one of actually being a man. There is no doubting the sisters’ gender identity. Serena certainly has by now appeared in enough fashion shoots (not to mention having dated some fine-looking men), to silence most of these critics. And I suppose the verdict on Venus’ sexuality has been crystal clear, thanks to her panties.

But sometimes I wonder if there is a part of Venus that may be a bit like Lady Ga Ga—so desperately and profoundly hurt by the allegations of hermaphroditism that she (Lady Ga Ga) seeks every opportunity to walk around in panties, showing us as much of her crotch as can be allowed without complete nudity. It’s like she always has to prove that she is not part man after all.

Because at heart these criticisms affect a woman’s body image. Serena addressed this issue straight on in the most recent interview of Harper’s Magazine. She claims that with the help of Pilates, she has lost inches and is down to a size 10 . And while she admits pride in always having been fit (“when I was six or seven in a swimsuit—I look back at those picture, and my arms are cut and my legs are strong. I didn’t realize that I was really fit and most people aren’t), she shares that she used to wish to look like her skinnier sister, but has come to accept her own body: “Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.” Like most women Serena seems aware of imperfections: "To this day, I don’t love my arms. People want more fit arms, but my arms are too fit. But I’m not complaining. They pay my bills.”

I can only hope for a similar resolution for Caster Semenya. She has not been allowed to run for 11 months. I hope she spent those months continuing to train, continuing to strengthen her physique and improve her speed. Because at the end of the day, her gender identity seems to be all girl. And that to me is perfectly compatible with strength, speed, and power.


Serena Williams reacts during the Ladies Final. Wimbledon Tennis Day 12. London. 03.07.10 Photo By Karl Winter Fotosports International Photo via Newscom