Understand that this is a word I never use. It’s a word I don’t like. Its overuse is probably the main reason I never venture into tennis forums anymore. It’s not nice to be called a hater. The accusation makes me flinch even though I am the one making it. Understand therefore that I do not use this word lightly. I am seriously interrogating the question of whether Mary Jo Fernández, the brown-skinned Latina minority woman who frequently commentates on ESPN, may be a hater of Serena Williams.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect everyone to be a fan of Serena Williams. It is perfectly OK with me if Mary Jo doesn’t like Serena. There’s no law that says she has to – although as the Fed Cup captain you’d think it would occur to her that being a hater is not exactly going to help her effectiveness.
But as a tennis commentator, one would expect at least a balanced and fair presentation of the facts about a player. The best commentators know how to leave their personal biases out of their commentary. When a commentator’s hatefulness begins to intrude, it affects the quality of her commentary.
I have felt for a long time that Mary Jo is not just a Serena hater but a Williams hater. But yesterday is the first time I challenged myself to look closely at why I feel this way. I asked myself, what exactly is it that Mary Jo does that gives me the impression that she is a Serena hater? I sat in front of the TV with pen and notepad. I had a case to make.
The match was about to start: Serena vs. Azarenka at the semifinals of the Roger’s Cup in Toronto. Chris Fowler served as host. First they discussed Tsonga vs. Djokovic. Everyone gave Tsonga a chance but agreed that the Djokovic train was unstoppable. There was no hate. Then they switched to talking Serena vs. Azarenka. Mary Jo picked Azarenka for the win. That was fine with me. She is entitled to her opinion.
Brad Gilbert disagreed, as circumspectly as he could. Mary Jo rebutted, a growing tone of querulous sourness in her voice. And I realized right away that that is part of why I have the impression that she is a hater. Whenever she talks about Serena her voice remains dour, sour, negative and gripy. Even when she praises Serena, there is never any excitement or happiness in her voice. She seems to remain dour, sour, negative.
Then Darren Cahill spoke. His first words were: “I like Serena”. And my gut went ding ding ding! Why would Cahill need to say “I like Serena” if he did not intuitively pick up on the fact that he was responding to someone who disliked her? Brad and Darren picked Serena for the win. Chris Fowler went along with Mary Jo but he was clearly just being politic. He had no bitch in this fight.
I picked Serena – but in all fairness, I always do.
The match started. I paid more attention to Mary Jo than to what was happening on the court. After all, I knew what Azarenka was going to do. She plays windshield-wiper tennis, side to side to boring side. No other strategy, no other technique, no creativity. Just mind-numbing side-to-side bashing like a gazillion other baseline banshees on the WTA tour.
I also trusted that Serena knew this. I trusted that Serena knew that Azarenka always starts strong and then begins to fade. I knew that Serena would deconstruct her like a predictable puzzle. I knew that Azarenka would have her moments, but that this match, as Cahill and Gilbert had predicted, was going to be on Serena’s racket. There was no need to pay attention. I could give the hater all of my focus and solve this puzzle once and for all. (Part 1 of 2)