There are many ways to look at Serena Williams, as is the case with any superstar athlete.
After she lost the U.S. Open women’s singles final to Naomi Osaka on Saturday, those who have always looked at her in a negative light — whether because of her race, her gender, her success, her commanding presence, her opinions, or any combination of these — surely had that view reinforced.
At least one high school girls’ tennis team in Section II takes the opposite. And continues to do so.
In a show of solidarity toward their hero, the Guilderland High School varsity donned black tutus for their home match against Schenectady last Friday. They were mirroring the outfit Williams wore to start the U.S. Open, in the wake of the banishment of a form-fitting black catsuit she wore during the French Open. It was a cool move by the Guilderland team, with serious thought behind it.
Then Saturday happened.
Guilderland Tennis sported tutus today showing support for their hero @serenawilliams as she competes at the @usopen . Couldn’t be more proud of my daughter Isabela & the team which will donate the tutus to a children’s org. @GoDutchAthletix @JustKristi @timesunion pic.twitter.com/M7XGKj3pvw
— Michael Parker (@MichaelParker_) September 7, 2018
With Osaka in control of the match, a chintzy call by chair umpire Carlos Ramos, known to be a stickler, shifted that control to three stages of a sideshow that included Williams smashing her racket, then being assessed a game penalty for lecturing Ramos (sans profanity) and labeling him a thief for making the call that started it all. With both players crying afterward — Williams is Osaka’s idol — Williams felt compelled to ask the crowd to please stop booing and let the 20-year-old have her moment.
On Tuesday, the Guilderland team was back in action, at Columbia High, for the first time since they wore the tutus, the brainchild of eighth grader Isabela Parker that was endorsed by their coach, Debra O’Brien, and the athletic department. Along with the 19 girls on her team, O’Brien wore one last Friday, too.
The coach, of course, can’t condone verbal abuse and physical abuse of equipment. “We follow the USTA point-penalty system; they get their warning during introductions,” O’Brien said.
The Guilderland players, meanwhile, aren’t letting Williams’ behavior diminish her standing among them, Parker said.
“I still see her pretty much the same way,” Parker said. “I know we all have ups and downs, and we shouldn’t stop respecting someone just because they had one little thing.
“And what she was saying through this whole big thing is that there have been men who have sworn at the umpire, and she was trying to make a point about the call. She didn’t swear.”
Parker came up with the idea of the tutus when she saw Williams wearing one to start the U.S. Open. Although Williams downplayed the wardrobe choice, it had all the looks of a nod to the French Open, in particular French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, who claimed that the catsuit was disrespectful to the sport and the venue. This is just another example of body-shaming of women athletes in general and Williams specifically.
O’Brien checked in with her athletic director to make sure the tutus, which were bought on-line and will be donated to a charitable organization, would be OK for a match, and also explained to the Schenectady team their motivation.
“I said the reason why we’re doing this is because one of my players brought up the fact that Serena has been going through a lot with this catsuit, and she asked if we could do this to show our solidarity with Serena,” O’Brien said. “They were like, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet.’ A couple girls were very impressed by it.”
“I had this idea after I saw what she was doing in response to being banned for the catsuit,” Parker said. “I had the idea of ‘Well, why don’t I support her by wearing a tutu, as well,’ because I feel like the whole female athletic community should all support each other.”
While O’Brien said Williams shouldn’t have smashed her racket, and that calling the umpire a thief “probably wasn’t the best thing,” as a coach she can appreciate the external pressures that come to bear on an athlete.
That’s not to excuse some of the things Williams did in the U.S. Open final, but context matters. That’s easy to ignore if your absolute position is that the rules are the rules are the rules.
“She just had a baby, she’s got all this pressure because of the publicity of her having a comeback,” O’Brien said.
“She did make a couple valid points. First of all, all the coaches do this little coaching stuff from the stands. Why did he [Ramos] choose, in the final match of the U.S. Open, to call that? No. 2, she has a very valid point, also, about many men, like John McEnroe, who have sworn at umpires, and I don’t think anyone has lost a game over this.”
“And it happened to be on a huge platform. We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, especially as an educator and a coach. I have no idea what kind of day this child has had, what’s going on with their home life. People have issues and they have stuff going on. So can we forgive them for this? Yeah. If she turns out to make this a consistent thing, then obviously you start to lose respect for somebody like that. I think it was an isolated incident.”
Of course, Serena and her sister, Venus, have had to endure the full spectrum of sexism and racism their entire lives. So you can understand how she would see Ramos’ “coaching” call through that sort of prism, in light of not necessarily the most blatant and harsh instances, but the smaller, casual acts of everyday sexism and racism that play their role, too.
“Cut her some slack,” O’Brien said. “I think she means very well, and wants women to feel strong and that they can succeed and be respected.”
“She’s not only an amazing athlete, but we can look up to her as a person, too,” Parker said. “She’s very strong and just came back from having a baby and she’s still playing her best.”