Over the past week, sports fans were yet again reminded by the green-eyed daggers Sloane Stephens leveled at Serena Williams that success oftentimes brings both admiration and envy. It is most unfortunate that Sloane either never received or failed to read the memo on what makes the Great Ones, quite simply, GREAT!
A Chase executive once stood on Arthur Ashe court during the trophy ceremony following one of Serena's early US Open Finals and boldly gushed "thank you for the excitement you're bringing to womens tennis." To Sloane Stephens, and every sports analyst, commentator, journalist, fan, and naysayer who did not get or read the memo, that excitement the Chase executive referred to, and has reaped millions as a direct result of, is not the product of CONFORMITY! And, quite frankly, the U.S. Open Womens Tennis Final did not make it to a prime time Saturday evening slot as a direct result of the congeniality of a Kim Clijsters. So this, Ms. Stephens, is where you might start with showing Serena the proper respect she deserves from you rather than demanding respect for unproven talent with no major title results to support the notoriety and respect you so anxiously crave.
Traditionalists cannot have their cake and eat it too - they want increased television ratings and exciting competition, but they still desire to fit all athletes into a mold that requires them to look the same, dress the same, compete the same, emote the same, and quite simply, conform to the norm of the all-white protocol of a Wimbledon, or the no-women-allowed membership mandate of The Masters.
I enjoy watching Federer, and also very much enjoyed watching Graf, Sampras, Ashe, and Nicklaus as much as I enjoy watching Serena and Tiger, but certainly have no desire whatsoever for Serena or Tiger to conform their competitive spirit, physique, personality, fashion sense, mannerisms, vocabulary, or anything else about them to that of their mainstream, congenial competitors. Variety remains the spice of life, folks, and if you don't like the Tiger and Serena 787 Dreamliners, then return to the 707 and let someone else have a first class seat in their journey to greatness.
The bottom line is Tiger and Serena got game, they got gate, and they have higher TV viewership. And I strongly suspect that this stark reality is the impetus behind someone within the upper echelons of the professional tennis establishment pulling Sloane's coat and making it painfully clear that they expected an apology to be made to the reigning Queen of the WTA. In fact, I dare suggest that the impetus behind all the praise reaped upon Sloane prior to her ESPN interview has a lot less to do with her talent and is much more likely driven by a desire for the tennis establishment to hold on to the ticket sales and viewership the Williams fans have generated once the Sisters have retired. This, Ms. Stephens, will not be accomplished by you openly attacking an individual who has repeatedly complemented you and gone out of her way to refrain from being drawn into the false mentor perceptions the media created -- a perception you initially obliged and used to your advantage.
Perhaps the most mean-spirited comment from Sloane's ESPN interview was when she suggested Clijsters was her real hero. However, I strongly doubt that watching Clijsters inspired Sloane as a child or gave her the courage to believe that she could both excel and be accepted in the professional tennis world -- a sport that has had very few African American competitors, and to date none more prominent or successful than the Williams Sisters.
I really empathized with Serena on this latest round of criticism from none other than another African American athlete not only because Sloane's comments were petty and wholly unfounded, but most importantly because the Williams Sisters have had to endure so much of this type of mean-spirited criticism and lack of acceptance from a largely white tennis establishment, tennis fans, and competitors. For example, the Indian Wells booing incident; Caroline Wozniacki's unacceptable and irresponsible impersonation of Serena despite the historical negative connotations African Americans have endured with regard to their physical differences; repeated negative comments regarding Serena's weight; racist sketches by Glory Halle while on the premises of the United States National Tennis Center; the Village Voice's 'Fear of the Williams Sister' article, etc.
So it is most disappointing that Sloane also jumped on the bandwagon and resorted to criticizing Serena for not being more like her white competitors. Outside the tennis world the menace of the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality is well recognized by many minorities and it is unfortunate that Sloane felt the need to resort to like-minded behavior to gain approval and win over Serena's detractors.
The wounds inflicted by Sloane will not heal overnight, and it will take much more than a cursory, high-handed tweet to convince Serena and her fans that Sloane's misguided comments can be attributed solely to her naivete about the road to greatness (after all she is the offspring of two accomplished athletes).