I’ve always admired the composure of tennis fans watching matches of greats like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova; the routine back and forth motion of their heads seem not only physically straining, but objectively pointless. I’ve found myself in the same motion when listening to gossip and drama between friends; sitting in the middle, looking to my left for the statement, right for the reaction, left for the response. I find myself in the same position as I write this article about Sharapova’s problematic accounts of her rivalry with Williams in her autobiography, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far.”
The rivalry between the two women arose July 3, 2004, when the then-17-year-old Sharapova defeated the two-time champion Williams in the final round of Wimbledon. “She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong,” Sharapova wrote. “And tall, really tall.”
However, Sharapova has exaggerated the rivalry in her head,morphing it into a war of words, during which Williams has won 19 of their last 21 matches. Sharapova attributes the future losses to an intimate moment shared between the two after the 2004 Wimbledon match.
“Guttural sobs, the sort that make you heave for air, the sort that scares you. It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there,” Sharapova writes.“But to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
Distracting from her recent 15-month suspension for doping and controversial wild card entry in the 2017 U.S. Open, Sharapova victimizes herself to keep relevant. Herein lies Sharapova’s problematic account: Williams’ competitiveness is isolating and intimidating, while she views herself as focused and impressive. Sharapova’s account reflects not only the lazy cliches of bitterness and emotions in women’s sports, but a desperate attempt to socially and financially benefit from the depiction of a Black bully.
The celebration of rivalries in women’s tennis is nothing new: the history between Margaret Court and Billie Jean King dominated headlines throughout the ‘70s. The relationship between Williams and Sharapova is as intriguing as it is economically profitable for the World Tennis Association and its sponsors. When the narrative villainizes a Black woman, however, problematic historical legacies of microaggressions carry social consequences that cannot be separated by a 78-foot court.
Williams stealthily addressed Sharapova’s accusations in an open letter published on Reddit on September 19, reflecting on her mother’s strength shortly after Williams gave birth herself. “I’m not sure how you did not go off on every single reporter, person, announcer and quite frankly, hater, who was too ignorant to understand the power of a Black woman,” she writes.
Exuding the heightened dignity often unfairly expected of black athletes, Williams defines the beauty and communal strength from her background. “I am proud we were able to show them what some women look like. We don’t all look the same. We are curvy, strong, muscular, tall, small, just to name a few, and all the same: we are women and proud!”
There still seems to be a disconnect as to why the professional and personal rivalry exists, according to Sharapova’s account.
“Serena and I should be friends: we love the same thing, we have the same passion,” Sharapova writes. “Only a few people in the world know what we know — what it feels like in the dead center of this storm, the fear and anger that drive you, how it is to win and how it is to lose.”
However, there are things that Williams knows that Sharapova will never be able to. Williams knows what it is like to confront the negative stereotypes of Black women. She knows the double standard of grace and sportsmanship that she is held to. She knows how damaging ignorance can be. It’s time for Sharapova to learn, and stop going back and forth with Williams.
Alicia Sadowski is a Daily Californian Sports staffer. Contact her at [email protected]