Why Does the World Keep Hating on Serena Williams?

I first became aware just how much some people liked to rag on Serena Williams when she won Wimbledon in 2015. Perhaps I was just living in some blissful bubble to not realise how she was treated by some members of the public and the press before that point, but it took JK Rowling defending her on twitter for me to catch on to the way in which Williams was regularly vilified and bullied. Whether it was that she was built like a man or that she wasn’t ladylike enough whilst playing, Serena Williams was a target of scorn for no apparent reason other than being supremely successful. It made me sick to the stomach. From that day I became a vocal and staunch supporter of the younger Williams sister. Beforehand, most of my attention in the women’s game was focused on British players, desperately hoping that we might one day create a female Wimbledon champion once again. For the past two years, however, I have been fiercely protective of Serena Williams in my own small way. I cannot stand bullies, I cannot stand racism, and I cannot stand sexism. All three are united in the way that Serena Williams is portrayed in the media. There have been plenty of think pieces regarding misogynoir and the way in which it is directed her way, and as a white woman I don’t feel like I need to add my voice to that particular conversation. I don’t have the experiences and perspective necessary to write in a nuanced and informed way. But I do have a few thoughts to add to this wonderful piece by Danielle Dash regarding the response to Serena Williams’ pregnancy. Not only that, but she was pregnant when she won her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January.

The news of Serena Williams’ pregnancy broke via Snapchat. She later admitted that this was a mistake and she didn’t mean to announce that she was expecting yet. But, in the digital age, no matter how quickly you delete something once it’s out there it cannot be taken back. Amidst the many congratulatory messages and admiration that she managed to compete at the highest level and win whilst in the early stages of pregnancy, there was a darker undertone to the response. Articles were written and framed in a way that seemed to suggest that this could have been a tactical pregnancy; the New Scientist article debunking the supposed benefits of pregnancy to female athletes had an accompanying click-baiting tweet unworthy of such a respected publication. It also gave far too much weighting at the start of the article to the suggestion that she may have had some benefit from being pregnant, seemingly undermining her incredible achievements at the Australian Open. If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t even see why the article needed to be written.

In the same vein came Ilie Nastase’s comments regarding the ethnicity of Williams’ unborn child. Serena Williams is black. Her fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, is white. I should hope that we no longer live in a world in which interracial relationships are a big deal, but apparently that is not the case. Nastase seems to feel completely justified in making the comments he did and at the time of writing he has refused to offer an apology. Williams’ response was dignified, measured and far kinder than Nastase deserved. It showed her class, but also revealed how those who are the victims of such public abuse are expected to not retaliate in kind. If she had reacted in any other way, some sections of the media would have seized upon it with glee.

Furthermore, shortly after Williams’ spokeswoman confirmed the pregnancy came the sexist articles, asking whether she  would want to return to the world of tennis once she became a mother. Would her priorities change? Would she still want to train and compete at the highest level? Not only do I not remember similar articles being written when the two top male players in the world, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, became fathers (Djokovic in 2014, Murray in 2016), but it also seems a subject not worth speculating on. Williams has recently suggested that she would return to competitive sport with her baby watching her from the stands, and I applaud her for her ambition and determination, but she deserves to be able to change her mind without having that choice scrutinised and analysed to death. It’s none of our business.

If, at the age of 35 and having become a mother, Serena Williams, WTA world number one, 23 time Grand Slam winner, the greatest female tennis player of all time, decides to retire from tennis in order to focus on her family, that is her choice. If she wants to take longer than originally planned out of the game before returning, that is also completely up to her and a valid decision. In fact, whatever she decides to do should be respected. Women should not have to feel like they should do anything because of societal pressure. That is the point of feminism. Williams should feel able to make whatever decisions she needs to regarding her career and her family without fear of judgement from the media and the rest of the world. Whatever it is, it’ll be the right one. I’m rooting for her.