It was marvelous a few weeks ago, during the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament in Palm Desert, California, to hear Serena Williams say definitively, in answer to a question, that she and Venus, her sister, were from Compton. Earlier a lot of sports pundits had tried to emphasize (and mythologize) that the sisters were from Michigan, Miami, or Palm Beach, Fla., or other erstwhile locations. Being from Compton, was to some people, some sort of blotch on the record of the award winning sisters.
A few months ago (September, 2018), as Serena played in the Finals of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, one of the four majors she has won multiple times in the sport, there was a major incident. The chair empire during the match had engaged in a long-running argument with Serena, and ended up penalizing Serena three times, which helped ensure that Serena lost that finals match. She was also being outplayed that day in a great display, by young Naomi Osaka.
There was a lot of anger and disappointment aimed at the chair umpire that day, and Serena accused him of sexism—i.e. of refereeing the match differently than if he were umpiring male players. Serena did not curse the umpire chair, but she did call him a thief for stripping her of first a point, then a whole game. She indicated that male players often did far more on the court and rarely got any penalties for such behavior.
There erupted a long public debate about the incident, and whether Serena was correct in her assessment of the quality of the chair umpiring, and the sexism charge. Earlier during that same tournament, another player had taken off her top to change to another blouse while on court. Men players do it very often, usually going shirtless for a bit on-court. The female player was penalized for exposing her sports bra, while male players never are castigated for such action.
Earlier during the year of Serena’s comeback, she had found out in returning to the tennis tour that her number 1 ranking, which she had held continuously for over 300 weeks, had been stripped from her because she had left the tour for a few months to give birth to her first child. Men players sidelined for injuries for a short time did not automatically lose their ranking, and being pregnant is not an injury, anyway.
Ms. Williams (actually, Mrs. Ohanian) felt she was getting the short end of the stick during this comeback tour, as were other players.
Ever the catalyst for action and changes, however, Serena’s protests over differential treatment (strongly supported by tennis legend Billie Jean King and many others) led to Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rule changes by the end of 2018. No more would female tennis players have their ranking stripped from them when they left the tour to have a child. Serena has since returned her ranking to number 10 in the world through tournament play, but she should have kept her Number 1 ranking in the first place. Now others will not suffer that same fate. The second rule change said that female tennis players would no longer be penalized for wearing leggings or compression stockings without a skirt or shorts. They also would not be penalized for changing their tops on court, as long as it did not involve nudity.
Venus Williams, earlier, had led the fight to get equal pay for women on the tennis court in majors, and the Williams sisters have had a major impact on several other equalizing rule alterations for professional female tennis players.
When Serena and Venus hang up their tennis rackets, which will be more sooner than later (Venus is 39 years old and Serena 37—both very long in the tooth for female tennis players on the tour), they will both be remembered as brilliant on-court players, and they will also be lauded for their consistent activism as game changers.
The game will be much better because they, are from Compton, played, won, and inspired significant change in the game.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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