Serena Williams has been battling against racism for years. In 2001, at the age of 19, she met it on the courtside in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open final against Kim Clijsters. Serena, on the cusp of adulthood, was persistently booed and heckled by a 15,000 strong crowd after her sister pulled out of an all-Williams semi-final at the last minute due to an injury, while her father reported racist abuse directed at him and Venus from the sidelines.
Serena beat her opponent, but she didn’t see it as a cause for celebration. Years later, in an essay for Time magazine, Serena wrote: “It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever – not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.”
That feeling probably hit her again when she saw cartoonist Mark Knight’s depiction of her, published in Australian newspaper the Herald Sun last week. Seeing her achievements reduced to ridicule, her passion mocked because she stood up when she felt she was being penalised when others in her position would not have been. The realisation that in 2018, not only does racist bigotry still exist, but it is given a platform by the press, and there are still those who defend it. It probably hit her like a tonne of bricks.
Knight’s cartoon shows two women at one of the grandest stages of professional sports. Naomi Osaka cast as a meek, faceless, innocent white woman, even though she is not white, and Serena, one of the greatest sportswomen alive, flattened and boxed into a stereotype that has already caused so much pain and has no place in the 21st century. The National Association of Black Journalists’ statement hit the nail right on the head: it is utterly repugnant.
And as if the cartoon itself wasn’t bad enough, the paper reprinted it the following day on its front page, a journalist writing: “If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way on his Serena Williams cartoon, our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed”. Ah yes, a world without racism. Sounds very dull indeed.
The Herald Sun is Australia’s most-read newspaper, and here it is, in 2018, sending out a message that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you push the boundaries, no matter how powerful you are, how many trophies you win, how many records you break, no matter how much effort you put into inspiring future generations, there will still be those who tear you down just for being you.
It’s almost two decades since the 19-year-old Serena sobbed in the changing rooms after winning that career-defining match. Since then she has moved mountains, proving herself to be one of the most formidable competitors in sport and going where no other tennis player has gone before. She has spent her whole career fighting for acceptance, respect and equality, and yet last week proved that the battle is still not over.