In Praise of Serena Williams
SPORTS, 17 Sep 2018
13 Sep 2018 – Serena Williams is a wonder of our time, fantastic as an athlete, enthralling as a competitor, and above all, a shining example of what it is possible to achieve if raw talent and a caring, brave, and moral sensibility is nurtured toward greatness.
Such praise would have seemed superfluous before the final of U.S. Open some days ago, when Williams fought her best against a harsh referee and a super-gifted court challenge mounted by Naomi Osaka, a rising star who may someday realize that her victory over the greatest woman tennis player ever, still near the top of her game, was made more special rather than diminished by the drama and controversy stirred by her celebrity opponent.
It should also be given much greater attention that Serena’s fierce fighting spirit while on the court is complemented by her generosity to her opponent after the match ended, whether she wins or loses. She invariably finds the right gracious and tender words to celebrate her opponent, even as here when she was deeply upset by the experience of this particular defeat. Serena especially encourages young players who have achieved so much against the odds.
We need to remember that Serena, and her wonderful sister, Venus, rose to these heights from a background in the downtrodden Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles where crime and drugs clamp down on human development and make ambition seem to many of its residents to be a futile waste of energy. Surely, her determined, defiant, politically incorrect father, Richard Williams, deserves extraordinary recognition for bringing his daughters to such athletic and societal prominence, and the overall strength of the Williams’ family seems to have also had an amazing character-building effect. To round out this remarkable story, both Serena and Venus have always expressed love, gratitude, and loyalty for what their parents and siblings contributed to their success. Perhaps, Serena’s roughness of language during tense moments on court is a remnant of the rigors of her childhood in Compton, and not as classy as might have been the kind of outbursts of frustration that flow spontaneously from those of us who emerged from privileged backgrounds and who have not had to battle against racist slurs and slights throughout our life. We who live without the struggles that are the destiny of every African American should give a bit of slack to our sisters and brothers who face such relentless challenges.
We should not deny Serena the benefit of the doubt, which means appreciating that ‘the real Serena’ is her demeanor after the competitive drama has ended, and her emotional intensity is so quickly displaced by humility, grace, and empathy.
I was struck some years ago when Serena during the trophy ceremony after winning the French Open responded in French to the delight of the crowd. What has long impressed me about both sisters is that they live life fully, and in ways that express interests and concerns that reach beyond tennis is a variety of directions, which is unusual for star athletes who are consumed by the demands of their sport, at least during their prime years.
In this time of Trump and Trumpism, we should seize the opportunity to celebrate the luminous presence of Serena Williams in our midst: a champion, a warrior for women and against racism, a woman of great charm and warmth, and a beacon of decency.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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