Over the weekend, Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev apologized for calling Venus and Serena Williams “the Williams brothers”—the least-funny insult in what for the Williamses has been a career filled with unfunny, sexist and racist insults for the sisterly titans of professional women’s tennis.
Ever since they stepped onto the court in the mid-1990s, the Williams sisters have been bombarded with obnoxious comments that have had absolutely nothing to do with their game. Critics have attacked their race, gender, faces, bodies, personalities and hair.
This latest insult is further evidence that no matter how many No. 1 titles they’ve held, trophies they’ve hoisted or records they’ve broken, because they don’t look like their blond, lithe and better-compensated competition Maria Sharapova, some critics will insist on taking their beef with the Williams sisters off the court and onto their bodies:
Comparing her posterior to an oozing pumpkin in a 2009 column for Fox Sports, Jason Whitlock went on a sexist screed about Serena Williams’ perceived laziness and weight gain that was wrapped in a contrarian-filled tortilla of shaming and mansplaining.
Wrote Whitlock: “She’d rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments and complain she’s not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands …. [S]eriously, how else can Serena fill out her size-16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?”
He couched his vulgar criticisms under the guise that he was a “fan” who really cares … about what number is on her scale.
“God gave Serena everything, including drop-dead looks. … She’s chosen to smother some of it in an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round.”
Then a sports announcer for Don Imus (of “nappy-headed ho” fame), Rosenberg made his fair share of odd, racist and sexist remarks about both Williams sisters. Rosenberg, who had previously referred to Venus Williams as an “animal,” reportedly said the following on the air in 2001:
“One time a friend, he says to me, ‘Listen, one of these days you’re gonna see Venus and Serena Williams in Playboy.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a better shot at National Geographic.’”
2007 Sony Ericsson Open
During the Sony Ericsson Open in 2007, Serena Williams’ third-round win against Czech Luci Safarova was tainted when a man in the audience shouted at Williams to “hit the ball into the net like any Negro would.” It’s speculated that Williams privately said the same man actually called her the n-word and not “Negro” in his harangue. The heckler was ejected from the match by security and was banned from returning to the tennis tournament.
In 2012 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki drew some furled eyebrows after she bizarrely stuffed her top and bottom with towels during a match to “look” more like Serena Williams. It was supposed to be a joke as the Danish player faced off against Sharapova. The inadvertent Hottentot Venus impersonation didn’t sit well with many. And while Williams took the matter in stride, telling the press she considered Wozniacki a friend and didn’t think she was being racist, Williams also said the young player “should take reason and do something different next time.”
2001 Indian Wells Tournament
In 2001 the Williams sisters were supposed to play each other in a semifinal at Indian Wells, a regular stop on the pro tour. Moments before they were set to take the court, the match was scratched because of a knee injury, and the mostly white crowd erupted in angry boos. Later, when Serena Williams played in the final against Kim Clijsters, the boos continued, and the sisters’ father, Richard Williams, reported that racist taunts were hurled at them by the crowd. In his book, Richard Williams described what unfolded as such:
“The chorus of boos that cascaded through the stadium sent a powerful message to America, to Venus, to Serena, and to me. It was a message from the past, one America tries to put behind it but can never forget. It was a snapshot from the days when the open humiliation of the black race was accepted without question. Accusations and racial epithets flew through the stadium.”