Posted by: mzbitca | July 5, 2009

Tennis and privilege

“Oh god, how did he learn to play, we never let him join”

Robin Williams Re: Tiger Woods.

Tennis has always been a very white-washed and class segmented sport much like golf.  I remember that when I played tennis in high school and finally started getting private lessons my mom told me a year of lessons for me cost more than my brother’s soccer and basketball expenses combined. It is the type of sport that adheres rigidly to “tradition” and, as in most cases, tradition also means resistance of anything that’s not white, rich or cissexual.  

Tennis also has incredible moments, such as Billie Jean King proving that men are not naturally better tennis players in her win over Bobby Riggs. Women at Wimbledon, now make just as much as the men,  a direct result of the Williams sisters and their popularity (although they still only get a slightly larger plate, rather than trophy).  And the most popular tennis player is no longer Anna Kournikova, a sub-par tennis player but beautiful woman.  It is true that women tennis players are still dolled up to appear on a magazine cover but at least now they’re winning majors and highly ranked. Sarah Gronnert is the first intersexed women to play on the pro-tour.  Women’s tennis has a lot to be proud of, yet every year privilege raises it’s ugly head and “tradition” works to tear it all down.

The best example is the reaction to the William’s sisters.  They were often criticized in their early days for “celebrating” on the court after they one.  People complained that it was unsportsmanlike and called them “classless”.  Of course, to the majority white and rich constituents of the tennis world, that was the more important story than two African American sisters, taught by their dad in a poor neighborhood on a broken court.  Their raw talent was too much to be held down by lack of money and “proper training” and it pissed and still pisses people off to this day.  They are strong powerhouse players which of course leads to the transphopic insults of “she-male’ or “men in skirts” that are often thrown around, as well as accusations of steroids.  Older and younger tennis players often took cheap shots at them, accusing them of faking injuries and being rude while every interview they give is torn apart for signs of arrogance  and reasons to label them as “trash”.   Instead of being proud of their contribution, people were threatened by what they represented: a non-white tennis player who didn’t need the best coaches to reach number one in the world.  They were good, better, than most and it messed with “tradition”.  Everything from their outfits to hair styles were criticized even as they proved that they could kick major ass with long earrings and colorful outfits.

The new “issue” plaguing women’s tennis now is the anger at the grunting that is going on.  Mcenroe is remember fondly as a hot head yet these women are criticized for ruining tennis, often by those that aren’t even playing them.  The eagerness to sexualize these noises by refering to them as porn-sounding is another way privilege raises it’s lovely head.  These are just silly women hitting a ball around,  they should just smile pretty and stop trying to play tennis intensely. (unless it’s the Williams sisters that are grunting, then it’s the aforementioned “classless”). Forget that it is often taught to both tennis and softball players that grunting while swinging helps with adrenaline  and strength. 

The rigid control of women in tennis is frustrating even as women keep achieving more and more.  The WTA owes much to the Williams sisters yet they allow so many to put them down.  The fact that they have been dominating the sport for so long frustrates the same people that celebrate Sampras and Graff.



  1. Interesting. The tennis club in my hometown offered a couple free lessons and a bit of free court time to high schoolers. It’s an enjoyable sport.

  2. I’m with you on the attacks on the Williams sisters. However, when you get to the issue of grunting, it kind of falls apart. The Williams sisters aren’t really the targets for this problem, and it likewise it has nothing to do with them being underprivileged. The main abusers as you know are younger, white players, namely Sharapova. It’s ridiculous how long each grunt lasts, to the point where it can be distracting for the opponent. Frankly, I don’t remember Navratilova or Graff needing to hit 100 decibels to return a ball.

    And thus I don’t really see how the grunting issue has any connection to privilege whatsoever. I do of course think you’re quite right with your look at the Williams sisters, though (basically everything before the “new issue” paragraph).

    • Zach,

      The grunting has been applied to more than just Sharapova at this point. She was the first ‘offender’ but now most commentary focus on the women in general. Just today I read an article on ESPN about the Williams sisters winning doubles that was filled with people complaining about their grunting.

      I can understand how the privilege article didn’t flow well with the new issue but the main constant is the breaking of tradition. Are the women grunting really affecting tennis or are the people commenting on the grunts and making sexual connections making it undesirable? It’s true that in some cases the grunting can be considered unsportsmanlike but the way they’re talking about it is ridiculous and seems like they are just determined to focus on something other than the woman playing tennis. The men’s tennis focuses on who people are playing and their actual game skills, not on the sounds they are making.

      • I truly believe that the reason McEnroe and many others dislike the grunting, is not just because it is a “sexual” sound. Why they don’t talk more openly about the true reasons, I cannot tell you. I heard a discussion about the grunts on the radio around Wimbledon and there are people speculating that tennis coaches are teaching their pupils to grunt so that the opponent cannot hear the ball coming off the racket. There is a big difference in the sound of the ball coming off the racket when you hit a powerful forehand as opposed to a delicate backspin backhand. If you can mask the sound of the ball coming off the racket, you have a chance to fool your opponent. Seems to me like a good reason to do it for the women and a good reason to complain about it for the tennis purists.

  3. I haven’t myself hurt the alleged grunting. But I have been in martial arts, and we are TRAINED to grunt, or make a sharp vocalization, every time we punch, because it makes us hit harder (I do not know why, but I know it to be true).

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

  4. The treatment of the Williams sisters shows almost everything that is wrong with the game. I am tired of listening to the racist commentary regarding them and the barely veiled sexism. As much as I support them in their endeavors I can no longer tolerate watching a match.

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