Why I Love Serena Williams and Michelle Obama

Serena Williams (pool/Getty Images); Michelle Obama (Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Serena Williams (pool/Getty Images); Michelle Obama (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

(The Root) — I once wrote of the comparisons between tennis legend Arthur Ashe, known for his grace and quiet temperament on and off of the court, and President Obama, who, like Ashe, has been criticized for not being emotional or angry enough at times. What I didn't write then is that part of why some of us so appreciate Michelle Obama is that occasionally she displays shades of Serena Williams: less quiet and more emotional, regardless of what the reaction will be. While President Obama smiles through a heckler, Michelle Obama steps up to put the heckler in her place.

As a tennis fan, I have been reminded a lot of the differences between the legacies of Ashe and Williams over the last month, specifically whether or not Williams will ever enjoy the legacy she deserves or if, like Michelle Obama, there will always be a segment of the population unable to see her talent and raw emotion beyond the intimidating black woman unafraid to break the mold for how history dictates she is supposed to behave.

Williams has endured what is arguably the greatest and worst month of her life. On the heels of winning her second French Open, she sparked an outcry following her controversial remarks about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, which led to allegations that Williams blamed the victim for her assault. Though I consider that interpretation of Williams' remarks an overreach by her critics (and the PC police), that doesn't change the fact that her words were clumsily chosen.


But the latest chink to be placed in the armor of Williams' public image comes at the hands of one of her primary on-court rivals (and, if rumors are to be believed, romantic rival), Maria Sharapova. Williams made critical comments in a Rolling Stone article about an unnamed top-five tennis player who many speculate is Sharapova, comments for which she has apologized within the last 24 hours. But not before Sharapova replied by saying:

At the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do on the court. I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that's just getting attention and controversy. If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids. Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that's what it should be about.

According to the rumor mill, Sharapova is dating someone Williams used to date, which would seem to explain why their rivalry has recently taken a more personal tone, and frankly would be the only reason their so-called rivalry makes any sense, because their competition on the court can barely be called a rivalry. For a rivalry to exist, two parties have to be considered near equals. Williams and Sharapova may both be tennis players, but that's a bit like saying that President Obama and LeBron James both play basketball. Williams has won far more Grand Slams than Sharapova has or will, not to mention an overwhelming majority of their matches (including their last 12). Their only true professional rivalry might be in the realm of endorsements.

Although Williams holds the record for the most prize money ever won by a female tennis player (nearly $50 million), Sharapova has routinely outpaced Williams in terms of endorsements throughout her career. Sharapova has earned double the endorsement income that Williams has, ranking No. 22 on the list of highest-earning athletes to Williams' much lower ranking of 68, according to Forbes.


Some might argue that in light of Williams' recent "verbal volleys," as some outlets have called them, the discrepancy makes sense — except it shouldn't.

Seeing tennis legend McEnroe have an on-court meltdown in person became akin to some tennis fans to being a baseball fan lucky enough to catch a foul ball at a game. (This fact was repeatedly recalled during Williams' most controversial public moment involving an overzealous lineswoman and an alleged threat.) McEnroe's image as a tantrum-throwing troublemaker was so synonymous with his brand that his infamous on-court tantrum catchphrase, "You cannot be serious!" was used as the title of his memoir. A recent American Express commercial spoofs McEnroe's confrontational image, featuring him perplexed when the customer service is so good that he misses out on the chance to argue with anyone.


It should also be noted that for male sports superstars, rivalries are encouraged and so are actual feuds, complete with trash-talking and the like. Having watched the terrific documentary about the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, I can't imagine the fan bases of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas being as revved up about seeing their respective teams go head-to-head without the perceived animus between the two men stirring the pot.

Yet we hold female athletes to a different standard. The female athletes who scale the world of blue-chip advertising and reign supreme there for any length of time all seem to have a few qualities in common: decent athletic capability, but more importantly, they are cute, nonconfrontational and nonthreatening. In other words, they embody the American ideal of womanhood, or at least some Americans' ideal of American womanhood. Women like Mary Lou Retton, Michelle Kwan and tennis great Chris Evert are terrific athletes, but it is arguable whether they are greater athletes than Serena Williams. But they are certainly less confrontational than she is, at least in public, and they are perceived as less threatening, too, fair or not.


While few advertisers will ever admit this publicly, much of this has nothing to do with behavior but with the fact that these women are petite and Williams is not, and she is black and they are not. For much of America, dark and statuesque will always scream less American and more threatening than tall, thin and blond — even if the tall, thin blonde is actually Russian — like Maria Sharapova. 

Williams is a lot less Retton and a lot more Muhammad Ali or even Jack Johnson, two black athletes who, in their prime, made white Americans, and some blacks, uncomfortable. But both found redemption when their athletic careers were behind them and people recognized that by being unafraid and unapologetic, they were far more courageous sportsmen than those who played it safe.


Here's hoping that Serena Williams finds her own measure of redemption sometime soon. 

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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