A black professional athlete from a European country who has performed on the grandest stages in his sport says he has experienced racism “nine days out of 10” during his career.
Who said this? Raheem Sterling? Antonio Rudiger? Mario Balotelli?
Although any of the aforementioned men may have had reason to make that statement, those words were spoken by black tennis player Jay Clarke of England.
Clarke, 21, has no history of being a miscreant or mean-spirited. Nevertheless, he says, his social media channels overflow with racist messages from those who follow his career, particularly after he loses a match.
Heather Watson, England’s No. 2 female player, experiences the same, if not worse. Her 2016 Wimbledon mixed doubles title gives her more prominence in the sport than Clarke.
“I’ve been called a monkey and told to go back to the zoo,” says Watson, whose mother is from Papua New Guinea.
Watson, 27, who won her first singles title since 2016 earlier this month in Acapulco, Mexico, told The Sun newspaper she has even received death threats.
“The Women’s Tennis Association takes them very seriously and works with police to investigate and catch those people,” she says.
However, if anyone has been arrested for making racist threats against Watson, Clarke or any other black tennis player in recent years, it has not been reported.
Instead, black athletes in tennis and football have had to endure ongoing indignities from those who are fans of a sport and enemies of humanity.
Tennis has no campaign similar to football’s No Room for Racism or Kick It Out because the abuse black tennis players experience is largely limited to racist trolls.
Monkey sounds and obscene chants are not part of the soundtrack during matches involving future Hall of Famers Serena Williams and her elder sister Venus, or any other black player.
But that doesn’t mean blacks in tennis have it easier. Racist comments don’t draw blood, yet they hurt just the same. Trying to defeat a world-class opponent is difficult enough without having to suppress the experience of racial insults before a match—or during the actual match.
The shared struggle of blacks in soccer and tennis—for respect, acceptance and genuine inclusion—is enough to compel them to recite lyrics from rhythm-and-blues legend Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anthem, ‘Inner City Blues’:
Make me wanna holler The way they do my life
Compared to what Sterling, Rudiger, Balotelli and other blacks experience on the pitch, racism in tennis is more subtle. Often, it takes the form of simply shunning black players. The problem is literally more than a century old.
Blacks were barred from Grand Slam events until Althea Gibson debuted at the U.S. Nationals (the forerunner to the U.S. Open) in 1950. Blacks played tennis long before that. Indeed, blacks founded the American Tennis Association, which still exists, in 1917.
Gibson teamed with Angela Buxton, a British native and the daughter of Russian Jews, to win the Wimbledon doubles crown in 1956. The experience could hardly be described as smooth sailing.
“I was playing with a black player who the audience didn’t really want to see,” Buxton told me. “Looking back on it, it was as if the press felt, ‘Maybe she’ll go away.’ When we won the doubles title, there was in one of our major papers in England a small column in thin type, ‘Minorities Win.’ That was it.”
Being ignored after achieving success is inexcusable. But being subjected to a racial double standard is worse.
Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City forward, has accused certain media of fueling racism in the way they depict blacks in soccer, including critiques of the way some blacks choose to spend their own money. Sterling, who has taken to social media to call out racism, has no intention of turning the other cheek, as Arthur Ashe often did in tennis.
Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion, remains the best-known black male tennis player ever, 27 years after his death. He possessed a seemingly preternatural ability to stay calm despite racial affronts.
Ashe, for instance, did not erupt when Ilie Nastase of Romania, a future Hall of Famer and notorious bad boy, spewed, “That goddamn nigger!” during a match against him. Ashe also defused a potentially combustible situation before a doubles match when his playing partner Nastase, in a misguided attempt at humour, walked onto the court in blackface.
When blacks in football are subjected to racism, they hope their clubs will come to their defence. Rudiger, the Chelsea defender, found no such support after he insisted he had heard monkey chants during a match this past December against Tottenham. This prompted Rudiger to lament, “For me, in this case, racism won.”
Balotelli, a striker for Brescia in Serie A, had white teammates actually prod him to stay on the field despite his contention that he had been subject to racist taunts during a match last November at Verona.
Sometimes, white teammates leave the pitch in solidarity with their black teammates. Sometimes, they do not.
In the individual sport of tennis, racial slights on the road can make life feel awfully lonely.
Scoville Jenkins, a black American player who spent seven years on the pro tour, sometimes travelled the circuit with his dad. Here’s how his dad described the life:
“When we go to Europe, they all look at black Americans the way they see us in films and on TV. They expect [Scoville] to be pulling out a gun or some [marijuana]. They expect him to walk around sayin’, ‘What’s up, motherf****r?’
There’s no fan reaction to Scoville when he plays abroad. They know who he is, but there’s no reaction.”
Those who view tennis through rose-coloured glasses may argue that whatever racial problems existed in the sport ended when the Williams sisters’ dominance began.
They would be wrong. Although Serena has won an Open era-record 23 major titles, including six at Wimbledon, and Venus has won seven majors, including five at Wimbledon, racism impacts the Williams sisters, as does its evil twin, sexism.
Try this: Enter in Google’s search engine “most major tennis titles in Open era.” Google gives the answer as Roger Federer. Wrong. Serena has won 23 major titles since 1968 to Federer’s 20. Because of sexism in Google’s algorithm, the men’s record is the default answer. Despite Serena’s greatness, she is still underrated.
Serena is still vilified by some because of the 2018 U.S. Open final she lost to Haitian-Japanese player Naomi Osaka—a match best remembered for the contentiousness between Serena and chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
Ramos first penalised Serena one point, then one game in the second set for emotional outbursts—even though many in the tennis community readily admit that male players get away with far worse without penalty.
The harshest public criticism of Serena came from Mark Knight, an editorial cartoonist for the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne, Australia. His September 10, 2018 cartoon depicted Serena as an obese mammy figure about to stomp her racquet, her mouth wide open in rage, while her slim, blonde-haired opponent asks the umpire, ‘Can you just let her win?’
Knight’s caricature of Serena attained a triple crown of bigotry—racism, sexism and body shaming—while also erasing the identity of the brown-skinned Osaka.
Venus, Serena’s elder sister by 15 months, endured “the Bump Heard ‘Round the Tennis World” at the 1997 U.S. Open. Irina Spirlea, the No. 11 seed from Romania, walked directly into Venus during a changeover in a deliberate attempt to intimidate the unseeded 17-year-old American.
Television cameras even caught Spirlea looking toward her friends’ box and laughing about the bump. Venus got the last laugh, however, winning the match in a third-set tiebreak. But the ugliness of that episode endures.
“She’s never trying to turn or whatever—she thinks she’s the f***ing Venus Williams,” Spirlea told the media after the match.
Venus’s father, Richard Williams, said Spirlea’s racism led to the collision. He called Spirlea “an ugly white turkey.”
That Venus has become a legend in her sport and Spirlea a mere footnote seems entirely appropriate.
Venus turns 40 in June, Serena 39 in September. Both have made a truckload of money. Neither would need to stay in tennis after they hang up their racquets. But for other black players who may aspire to become tournament directors, tournament referees, coaches, umpires or commentators, the opportunities are few. Only one black former player is a tournament director today: former World No. 4 James Blake at the Miami Open.
Football isn’t any better. It is far more likely for a white former player to become a club manager, assistant manager or head of operations than a black former player. When blacks get more opportunities to extend careers in their sport of choice after their playing days, it will be a true indicator of colour-blind casting in tennis and football.
In the meantime, ongoing efforts by blacks for respect, acceptance and inclusion in soccer and tennis call to mind the rallying cry of the Frelimo movement during Mozambique’s battle for independence from Portugal in the 1970s:
A luta continua. The struggle continues.
Cecil Harris is the author of Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (University of Nebraska Press).