Much Ado About Serena Williams Grand Slam losses and the Anthropology of the Great White Hope
by Ahmed Sule
What is the quickest way for a tennis player’s sculpture to be carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore? Defy the odds by defeating Serena Williams at a Grand Slam tournament. Without a doubt, Serena is the top draw in women’s tennis. She is the holder of 23 single Grand Slam titles and 14 women’s doubles Grand Slam titles. She has been the number one seeded player for 319 weeks and has four Olympic gold medals. With Serena having such a stellar career, she is the player to beat. Following her victory over Serena at the recently concluded US Open, Bianca Andreescu joins an illustrious list of women who have achieved international fame on the back of a Grand Slam victory over Serena.
On 3 July 2004, the then 22-year-old Serena Williams faced an unknown 17-year-old Russian by the name of Maria Sharapova in the finals of the 2004 Wimbledon Championships. At the time, Serena was the two-time defending champion and number 1 seed. Contrary to expectation, Sharapova won the final in straights sets. With the victory, Sharapova became an overnight sensation. The headlines screamed with titles like, “A Star (Who Happens To Be A Gorgeous 6-Foot Blonde With Blistering Strokes) Is Born “; “10 Facts About Sharapova”; “Sensational Sharapova is a Russian revelation”; “Navratilova hands over the baton”; “Sharapova Conquers Wimbledon” and “Advertisers line up for piece of Sharapova “. Martina Navratilova, the 18 times Grand Slam winner said, “But Maria winning is the best thing for women’s tennis…. Also, it’s good because a Williams didn’t win. Not because they’re not good but because they haven’t given the game 100 per cent.” After the victory, marketing experts accurately predicted Sharapova “Could become one of the richest sports stars on the planet.” 15 years after her famous victory over Serena, her net worth according to Forbes is $195 million.
Garbiñe Muguruza, who turned pro in 2012 captured the world’s attention when she handed Serena Williams her worst defeat in a Grand Slam tournament (at the time) during the 2014 French Open where she defeated Serena 6–2; 6–2 in the second round. Two years later she captured her first Grand Slam at the expense of Serena and got her second Grand Slam in 2017 at Wimbledon when she defeated Serena’s sister Venus Williams. As a result of her achievements, she has been feted by the media as the only player to earn a Grand Slam title at the expense of both siblings. The Metro captioned its article covering Muguruza’s second Grand Slam, “Garbine Muguruza responds to becoming first player to beat Serena & Venus Williams in a Grand Slam final.”
January 2013 was the turn for Sloane Stephens to be engraved on Mount Rushmore when as a 19-year-old she stopped Serena at the quarter-final stage of the 2013 Australian Open. Being a black player gave Stephens victory added momentum. Hollywood’s finest and sporting legends jumped on the Stephens bandwagon sending congratulatory messages for a quarter-final win. Her Twitter followers increased by 2,444% within 24 hours of her victory. Journalists competed for attention-grabbing headlines like “Sloane Stephens: The Teenage Star Who Beat Serena Williams”; “Sloane Stephens Becomes a Household Name Literally Overnight” and “Sloane Stephens, new star of tennis”. She even made an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show. In the aftermath of her newfound fame, Stephens will go on to suggest that Serena was a sore loser and did want to engage with her.
Before her 2016 US Open semi-final match, Serena was two matches away from completing a calendar Grand Slam, which occurs when a player wins the four Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year. Standing between her and this feat was Italy’s Roberta Vinci, a player who was more of a doubles specialist and who Serena had defeated 4 times consecutively without dropping a set. Vinci denied Serena a Calendar Grand Slam. Even though Serena has achieved two non-Calendar Slam in her career, this was put aside and her loss to Vinci was over-egged. Vinci who has since retired is remembered for only one match — her success in preventing Serena from getting a calendar Grand Slam.
After Naomi Osaka defeated her idol Serena at the 2016 US Open final under controversial circumstances, she became the flavour of the month. Forbes estimated in an article titled, “Naomi Osaka Strikes Gold With Defeat Of Serena Williams In U.S. Open Final” that her off-court earnings were likely to soar tenfold over the next couple of years, from $1.5 million to more than $15 million. Joe Favorito, a marketing expert said, “Her brand value for Adidas is in the millions now, what’s more, other major brands from financial service firms to beverage and watch companies will be beating down the door to Osaka’s IMG agent.”
In addition to over-celebrating those who defeat Serena, her losses are also framed within a historical context. Besides “immortalising” Vinci for stopping her from achieving a calendar Grand Slam in 2016, media houses claimed Serena’s defeat as the biggest upset of all times. Two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin said, “This is monumental. It’s a shocker. This is one of the biggest upsets in the history of tennis, because of what was on the line.” USA Today published an article titled, “13 reasons Serena Williams’ loss to Roberta Vinci was the biggest upset in tennis history“. When Serena lost to Karolina Pliskova at the 2018 Australian Open after going up 5–1 and 40–30 in the deciding set, her defeat was described by the Economists as the biggest choke recorded in women’s tennis history.
The idea that Serena’s domination of the women’s tennis tour is the reason for the veneration of women who defeat her and the amplification of her losses disintegrates when one considers the reaction to stunning defeats of other tennis greats. While the media fetishes at Serena’s defeat and sponsors rub their hands looking for the “next big thing”, we rarely see such interest when other dominant players lose. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal have dominated the men’s side of the tennis aisle in the same manner as Serena has done on the women’s side. Yet, when they experience unexpected loses at Grand Slam tournaments, their conquerors are not celebrated or their losses subjected to intense scrutiny. For instance, when Nick Kyrgios, who was a 19-year-old 144th ranked wildcard, defeated Rafa Nadal in the 4th round of the 2014 Wimbledon Championship, we didn’t see the ecstasy that has become so familiar with Serena’s losses. Marketing executives were not predicting Kyrgios future earning capabilities. A year later, even though Nadal was knocked out in the second round of Wimbledon by 102nd seeded Dustin Brown, advertisers were not lining up for a piece of Brown.
On the women’s side of the draw, when an upstart takes the scalp of a top-ranked player who is not a Williams, she doesn’t become an overnight sensation. When current Wimbledon champion Simona Halep lost to world number 116 Taylor Townsend at the US Open, though it was reported in the press as a shock win, the defeat was never framed as the worst defeat in tennis history nor was Taylor flooded with endorsement offers. One wonders what would have happened if Taylor, a black tennis player had defeated Serena Williams instead.
But Nick Kyrios, Dustin Brown and Taylor Townsend never went on to win a Grand Slam title hence why they are not celebrated? This argument falls apart when one considers the case of Jelena Ostapenko. In 2017, Ostapenko defied the odds by winning the French Open when she overcame a set and 3–0 deficit in the final to defeat Simona Halep. Upon winning the title at the age of 20, she became the first unseeded woman to win the French Open in the open era. If one takes into consideration the treatment accorded the likes of Osaka, Muguruza and Sharapova following their victories against Serena, one would have expected Ostapenko to be flooded with accolades from the media and endorsements from brand executives. However, two years from her Roland Garros success, Ostapenko is yet to get the same level of recognition that her counterparts who defeated Serena to win titles are receiving.
So why is there so much ado about Serena’s Grand Slam losses? The key reason is the Western world has had enough of the Williams Sisters and Serena Williams in particular. The hostility the sisters have faced from the media, fans, players and tennis authorities in the form of sexism and racism ever since she turned pro in 1994 is well documented. Venus Williams continues to be barged with questions about her retirement. However because the Sisters are a big draw in the women’s games, there is the fear that if they leave the stage without a replacement, the women’s game will be on a downward spiral hence the frantic search for the “Next Serena.” The theory goes that a player who knocks Serena out of a Grand Slam will probably be the one to dominate the sports in the future. So to get a head start, marketing executives jostle to get the coveted signature. In the quest of looking for the “Next Serena”, the world is failing to appreciate the “Real Serena”
Overemphasizing her loss is also an attempt to diminish her greatness. Rather than focus on her epic victories, the Western media prefers to define her by her losses. Despite losing a total of 142 times in her career, each loss especially those at Grand Slam tournaments are overanalysed, over scrutinised and overegged. To downplay her achievements, the goalpost continues to be shifted. When she reached 15 Grand Slam titles, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s 18 Grand Slam titles became the golden standard to beat. After she reached that milestone, the post was shifted to Steffi Graf’s 22 open era titles. But when she broke the record at the 2017 Australian Open, through a strange formula an open era record which is given more significance in tennis history was buried as Margaret Courts 24 Grand Slam titles (13 of which were won before the open era) was resurrected and this is now used to deny Serena her place in history.
A consequence of over-celebrating those who prevail against Serena and focusing on her losses is that players come to see defeating Serena as an end to a means rather than a means to an end. Prevailing against Serena is seen as the fifth Grand Slam. This mindset is bad for the long term future of women’s tennis. Garbine Muguruza who has won two Grand Slams against the Williams Sisters said her best tennis matches are against the sisters. In the 15 years of over-celebrating the “Next Serena”, none of them have been able to live up to the hype. Sharapova has lost 19 consecutive times to Serena since her last victory; Sloane Stephens is still stuck on one Grand Slam title; Roberta Vinci retired without winning any Grand Slam; since her triumph against Serena at the 2016 French Open, Muguruza has been knocked out 2 times in the first round and 5 times in the second round of Grand Slams while Osaka is struggling with the weight of expectation.
In the 1970 movie The Great White Hope directed by Martin Ritt, James Earl Jones played the role of Jack Johnson who was the first black world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson dominated the heavyweight boxing scene from 1908 to 1915.
Johnson was subjected to racial abuse from his fellow white Americans who called for a Great White Hope to bring the belt back to the white side of the colour line. Johnson defeated several opponents who were initially labelled the great white hope. In 1910, Johnson faced James Jeffries the retired undefeated champion in a match described as the fight of the century. Jeffries became the ultimate great white hope as the nation was banking on him to end Johnson’s hegemony over the heavyweight title. Johnson retained his crown in the 15th round after Jeffries team threw in the towel. The defeat of the great white hope led to a race riot in 50 cities throughout America.
Serena Williams is the 21st century variant of Jack Johnson. Like Johnson she is black; like Johnson, she is the most dominant champion of her era; like Johnson, she is dominating a sport that was previously the preserve of whites; like Johnson, she is one of the most famous African-American on earth; like Johnson, she has been in the news for the wrong reasons; like Johnson, she is a cultural icon who transcends tennis and like Johnson, her formidable opponents (irrespective of whether they are black, brown or white) are the great white hope. Just as Jack Jeffries was the quintessential great white hope, Maria Sharapova was once the quintessential great white hope of tennis. Just as Jeffries was handsomely rewarded for fighting Johnson, Sharapova was beautifully rewarded for playing Serena.
As we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, the search for the next great white hope of tennis continues.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA