Let me start off by saying that I am a true tennis fan and player (albeit an incredibly out of shape one compared to my not so illustrious days on my high school team another lifetime ago). I should also add that I am enough of a tennis nerd that I remember the days when Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt were sort of like the Prom King and Queen of tennis, so I was proud to see Kim, a new mom, battling her way into her first Grand Slam final in years, on sheer grit, determination, and talent.
And then she got a little unnecessary help from a lineswoman.
Now I want you to honestly ask yourself the following. If a lineswoman had called a questionable foot fault on Andy Roddick in the final game of his marathon Wimbledon battle royale against Roger Federer, near match point no less, what would the general reaction of most tennis fans -- particularly American tennis fans -- have been? Or if a linesman had called a foot fault on Melanie Oudin at a crucial point during her fairy tale like run at the Open (where I had the immense pleasure of seeing her play) what would the general reaction of the fans filling Arthur Ashe stadium have been? If the way we behaved during her match against Dementieva is any indication, then I'm guessing we would have seen an Attica-like riot.
Before the eye rolling begins, let me be clear. I am not arguing that Serena Williams -- with her countless titles and millions of dollars -- has somehow been a victim of racial bias. But I don't think anyone who is a real tennis fan can argue that she hasn't been a victim of some bias throughout her and her sister's, history-making careers, and Saturday night was one such moment.
In spite of how they have dominated the sport at near Tiger Woods like levels, it has long been acceptable to not like and not root for the Williams sisters even though they have been one of the few bright spots for American tennis fans of the last few years. (During her 2001 meeting with Clijsters at Indian Wells, Serena Williams was booed so badly that she and her family have never returned to the event).
One can't simply blame race. After all, James Blake has enjoyed immense popularity among American tennis fans, many of us hopeful that he will one day fulfill the promise so many of us see in him. With the Williams sisters it has always been less about what color they are and more about who they are: from Compton, not from Connecticut; wearing wildly colored fashion combos, instead of pristine tennis whites; talking loud and proud of their roots, instead of quietly trying to blend in; rocking braids and cornrows in the early days, instead of joining the ranks of Beyonce (and some of the rest of us) by getting a more socially acceptable, "lady-like" weave.
And then there's the dad. When Richard Williams held up a sign during the 2000 Wimbledon final proclaiming, "It"s Venus' Party and No One Was Invited" there were more than a few Americans -- including many black Americans -- who cringed. But he came by his over-the-top nature honestly. He and his daughters have made no secret of the role class played in their early struggles to find acceptance on the circuit. (Let's be real. Tennis remains, to this day, very much a country club-esque sport and while the Williams scream a lot of things, country club is not one of them.) In one of their earliest "60 Minutes" appearances a sports journalist recalled that it was common knowledge that many in media and the sports world had rooted for them to fail, if only to spite their abrasive father. Subsequently their love, hate relationship with American fans became a bit like debating which came first: the chicken or the egg. Some wondered how they could lift their rackets with such huge chips on their shoulders and for a while it seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: They acted as though the whole world was against them and the whole world obliged.
There's a saying: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean 'they're' not after you." In the case of the Williams sisters there have been questionable calls over the years that have cost both of them grand slam matches before this latest one, including a 2004 call that cost Venus a Wimbledon match (and cost the umpire in question his participation in the remainder of the tournament) and a series of questionable calls in the 2004 U.S. Open that led to Serena's loss, including one that former player and analyst Tracy Austin labeled "quite literally the worst call I've ever seen."
Instead of their attitude and outbursts being cited as proof of their passion for the game, as it had with other players (Mac the Knife anyone?), it became further proof to some that they didn't belong.
But in those moments when they seemed to forget about the rest of the world and just let go and play, they managed to give us tennis fans a real gift. (Even their father displayed moments of grace that surprised many, such as when he said of Venus's Wimbledon opponent Lindsay Davenport, "I love Lindsay...She's a wonderful human being.")
Which is why Saturday's events leave me so saddened.
Yes Serena was wrong.
But so was the lineswoman.
And so is every tennis fan who isn't willing to honestly admit that Saturday's call never would have happened, nor been deemed acceptable for any other player under those circumstances.
But other players are not named Williams.