With Position Comes Power. Will You Use It? How?

March 13, 2015

The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are exquisite tennis players. To the game they have brought strength and grace and resolve and toughness. They’ve succeeded and they’ve done it their way. So doing they taught tennis watchers a new model for success. They taught us that great players don’t have to emerge from the country club set or be the products of high-end tennis academies. The Williams sisters come from the playgrounds of Compton, California. They show us the best tennis player don’t require a cast of advisers and coaches and handlers that changes as often as the players’ court fashions. Venus and Serena had their father Richard and at some point they grew into self-reliant champions.

Their story is not entirely one of first impression in the game of tennis. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe preceded them as African Americans who played the game at the highest level and won its greatest championships. Jimmy Connors honed his skills on the playgrounds of East St. Louis and was pushed forward, pressed and prodded really, by his mother. He too demonstrated fierceness. He too came into his own, depended on himself, and for a time stood at the very top of the tennis world.

Yet their difference is always how the tennis world sees the Williams sisters. Here’s an example: When they first began to stun the tennis world with strength and prowess, a plaint heard was that these two young women did not respect tennis tradition. They didn’t enter every tournament. They even skipped Grand Slam events! When they met in the finals of a tournament – and Venus and Serena were so good that this happened fairly often – the resulting match sometimes featured less than perfect tennis.

At the time I was an aging white dude learning the game. That was fun! I was soaking up the history of the game, reading about its greats as I tried with no great accomplishment to refine my strokes. And I bought into the criticism that, good as they were, Venus and Serena did not understand what playing the game meant and required. I was way wrong. Not for the first time and not for the last I adopted uncritically a perspective serving and preserving the powers-that-be, an understanding in line with the way things are.

Time has proven the Williams sisters to be wonderful exemplars of tennis excellence and true champions. They shaped careers that lasted longer than usual and included laudable success. This is especially true of Serena. She has spent time on the sidelines only to return to competition as strong as ever. Serena Williams turns 34 this year, well past the age when top players leave the court. She has won an incredible number of titles, including Grand Slams and Olympic gold medals, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Today, Serena is ranked number one among all active women players. Any serious discussion of the greatest players ever includes Serena Williams.

Now to my point about position and power and the uses of power. The story dominating tennis this week is that Serena has announced she will end her fourteen-year boycott of the Indian Wells tournament. I won’t tell the story in depth, there are better sources and I hope you will read them. I like this telling by William C. Rhoden who writes as insightfully and incisively about sports and race as is possible. (I first typed “incitefully” above; though not a word dictionaries recognize, it describes how Rhoden writes, and I like it.)

Briefly, in 2001 at Indian Wells, Serena and Venus won through to the semifinals, where they were to meet. Venus, citing injury, did not play, moving Serena into the final match by default. Playing for the championship, Serena, along with Venus and their father who sat in the stands, was booed throughout the match by fans.

Serena won the championship match. Serena is tough. She and Venus announced they would never return to play again at Indian Wells, then and now a prominent early tournament on the women’s tennis circuit. Positioned as proven champions, the Williams sisters had the power to renounce their treatment at Indian Wells and choose not to grace that tournament with their talents again.

And now, in 2015, Serena has announced she will play at Indian Wells again. She’s ranked number one. She’s one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She has power. Her choice to return to play again at the place she renounced, as reported by Rhoden, is motivated by these times in which our nation is openly grappling with issues of race and power and politics: “I thought it was really good timing, not just for me but for Americans in general, to step up and say, ‘We as a people, we as Americans, we can do better, we can be better, we are better.’ ” Unstated by Serena is the opportunity she offers the fans at Indian Wells to cheer and applaud her with enthusiasm and respect as they should have done fourteen years ago.

Position brings power. Power can be used. This is how Serena Williams uses it. When you get power, how will you use it?

Randy Wagner (email me here)