Serena Williams inadvertently announced some happy news last week — that she is pregnant — but she also had to turn serious to address what she said was a “racist” comment and “sexist” behavior by tennis legend Ilie Nastase.
In the midst of actions that resulted in his provisional suspension from the Fed Cup by the International Tennis Federation last week, Nastase had made a clueless comment about the baby Williams and her fiancee, Alexis Ohanian, are expecting. “Let’s see what color it has,” Nastase said, according to Romanian and British media. “Chocolate with milk?” (Ohanian is white.)
In addition to his comments about Williams, Nastase also verbally abused British player Johanna Konta, captain Anne Keothavong and the umpire at Fed Cup, reportedly calling Keothavong and Konta “f—ing b——” and leaving Konta in tears.
“I think they were very inappropriate comments,” Williams said during her TED talk Tuesday in Vancouver. “Not only that, I’ve been really supportive of my peers and the people that I work with. I’ve been a pro for almost 20 years.
“For me it’s really important to hold women up. It’s something, these young women they’ll come to the locker room, they’ll want to take pictures with me. For me, I want to be a good leader and a good example for them. Not only did he have rude things to say about me and then my peers, I felt it was important for us to stand up for each other and to stand up for myself.”
On Monday, Williams spoke up for herself and for Konta and Keothavong, expressing disappointment over the matter and quoting Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” on Instagram. “It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments towards myself and unborn child, and sexist comments against my peers,” she wrote.
“I am not afraid unlike you. You see, I am no coward. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? You may shoot me with your words … you may try to kill me with your hatefulness, but still like air I will rise.”
Now 35 and with two decades of pro tennis experience behind her, Williams is becoming increasingly willing to speak out on racial and social issues. For 14 years, she boycotted the Indian Wells Tournament over racial taunts in 2001. Two years ago she decided to play there again and explained her decision in a Time.com essay:
It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever — not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality. Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.
I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.
Taking stock of the social and racial landscape, Williams has been assessing her place in it and as part of that, she knows just how different the debate about whether she is one of sports’ all-time greats might be if only…
“I think if I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long time ago,” Williams said last December in an interview with rapper Common for ESPN’s “The Undefeated.”
“I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being black, so it’s a lot to deal with — and especially lately. I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”
Male athletes, like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, have not been hesitant to speak up about violent events or during the election cycle, but, as a woman and an African American in a sport long dominated by white people, Williams has had to overcome a self-preserving instinct to suppress her opinions. But events, like the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop by a Minneapolis-area police officer, have changed her. She wrote on Facebook about the shooting, captured on video by Castile’s fiancee, about the fear she felt for her nephew as he drove her places.
“I remembered that horrible video of the woman in the car when a cop shot her boyfriend,” Williams wrote. “All of this went through my mind in a matter of seconds. I even regretted not driving myself. I would never forgive myself if something happened to my nephew. He’s so innocent. So were all the others.
“…Why did I have to think about this in 2016? Have we not gone through enough, opened so many doors, impacted billions of lives? But I realized we must stride on — for it’s not how far we have come but how much further still we have to go.”