Friday, March 20, 2009

What is it about Indian Wells and Black female tennis players?

Of course I could just as easily have called this entry “What is it about Indian Wells and Black female tennis players with names starting with ‘W’”? First it was the Williams sisters. Well actually specifically it was Serena but of course Venus is as loyal as they come to her baby sister so if you hurt one, you hurt both.

I remember taking part in some fierce arguments at the time of BOO-gate. Some folks tried to convince me back then that all tennis fans boo players and what was the big deal if Serena got a little booing, after all she was a big girl, they said, no tongue-in-cheek, no pun intended, dead serious about defending the right of fans to boo whomever they see fit.

And I’ve said before, probably somewhere on this blog, there’s a huge difference between “booing” and “BOOOOOOOOing”. Serena getting booed was not the problem. Serena getting booed because she had done something to upset the crowd would be absolutely fair game. But Serena had done nothing wrong. She was slated to play her sister in the semi-finals of the tournament. At the last minute, Venus called in sick, saying that she had tendonitis in her knee. The crowd had every right to be upset. I would be upset too if I had paid my money to fly out to California and then a professional tennis player announces just before the match that she could not play. Disgruntled fans everywhere find their own way to express themselves against players that piss them off. That is their right.

But there were two things that went wrong in Indian Wells back in 2001. First, the crowd waited until Serena showed up at the finals against Kim Clijsters and they started to boo her. In other words, Serena was made to pay for her sister’s behavior. If they were not sisters, that may never have occurred. I say “may” because they are not the only siblings in the world of tennis, but it was the first time that a disgruntled crowd took out their anger against one sister on the other. At the time I argued that Venus and Serena are separate individuals and that it was unfair of the crowd to treat them as if they were interchangeable.

The second thing that went wrong in Indian Wells was the perception by many that the crowd’s negative and sustained hostility towards Serena in the finals match was the result of racism. Richard Williams claimed to have overheard racist slurs. I have no idea if this occurred or not and have never argued one way or the other on this issue.

What struck me at the time, and what has remained crystal clear ever since, was the fact that lost in the controversy over Richard’s claims was the fact that Serena herself never accused the crowd of being racist. She never has. She has gone on record as saying that she herself never overheard any racist comments. What upset her was the level of sustained hostility. What upset me was the potential in the situation for violence. An angry crowd of thousands, alcohol flowing, frustration mounting because Serena was thrashing Clijsters who suddenly became the favored darling of the crowd, (and I will go to my grave believing that Serena gave Clijsters that second set in an unconscious bid to pacify the crowd), and yes, possibly some folks that wear white sheets in the dark of night mixed in among the angry bunch — all of these elements combined to make for a situation that must have been absolutely terrifying for the then 20-year-old Serena. I entirely support her decision to never go back to that traumatic place.

And now comes this week news of yet another strange event involving yet another Black female tennis player, this time with the name of Washington. News reports claim that Mashona Washington, sister of Mali Vai Washington (gorgeous tennis player and utterly boring tennis commentator), daughter of William Washington (who for a while there seemed to be competing with Richard Williams to see who could make the most outlandish claims of racism against the tennis establishment) — yes that Mashona Washington, just done gone and got herself arrested in Indian Wells.

Some reports claim that she was arrested on Monday and charged with felony vandalism to the tune of $5,000. However she played tennis as usual on Wednesday, losing in doubles to a pair from Spain. So if these facts are correct, her possibly trashing her hotel room seems unrelated to her loss in tennis two days later. The WTA has of course remained unsurprisingly closed-mouth, claiming that they are “monitoring the situation”, whatever that means.

Look I don’t know what went down but of course I wish Mashona well. I hope she hires a great attorney and begins the process of clearing her name. Until then, I think we need to consider putting out one of those travel advisories. You know like the ones telling you not to cross the border into certain parts of Mexico if you value your life. Maybe we need one saying not to travel to Indian Wells if you’re Black and female.