Reuters

Serena Williams Australian Open Choke narrative smacks of white supremacy downgrade of black excellence

Dear Editor,

I have read with interest J.S opinion piece (J.S full name was not displayed in the article) titled, “Serena Williams’s choke was the biggest recorded in women’s tennis” which was published in the 24 January 2018 online edition of the Economist. The article was written in response to Ms Williams loss to Karolina Pliskova at the recently concluded Australian Open where she gave up a 5–1 and 40–30 lead in the deciding set. According to the author, the loss was the biggest choke in women’s tennis. J.S notes, “Ms Williams suffered a momentary case of “the yips” With all due respect to J.S, the article is logically flawed, disrespectful to Ms Williams and smacks of the use of white space to downgrade black excellence.

Publishing the article under the Game Theory section of the Economist might give it a veneer of intellectual respectability especially when the author cites probabilities and data analysed from Match Charting Project. However, the logical framework used to arrive at the conclusion is flawed. JS put his/her argument by using the following syllogism:

Premise 1: Serena was one point away from victory with a 98.9% probability of victory at match point

Premise 2: Serena lost the match despite the odds in her favour

Premise 3: A review of 2,300 matches featuring women in the 21st century revealed no example of a greater collapse

Conclusion: Serena’s choke was the biggest recorded in women’s tennis.

The critical flaw in JS argument is that it failed to consider and eliminate other possible factors for Ms Williams loss. JS asserted, “It is hard to give any other explanation than that Ms Williams suffered a momentary case of “the yips”. The exclusion of possible explanations enables JS to justify his/her position. If the author had spent more time critically examining footage from the match, he/she would have saved time and money spent analysing Match Charting Project’s repository of tennis data. He/she could have also identified the possible reason for Pliskova’s ability to escape the jaws of defeat to record a remarkable victory against the Queen of tennis. What J.S failed to factor in his/her analysis is the fact that while 5–1 up in the deciding set, Ms Williams rolled her ankle at the first match point and her performance deteriorated from that moment. During the post-match interview, Ms Williams noted, “I really hate calling the trainer out, to be honest … And at that point, I didn’t feel like I needed it, or I didn’t feel like it would be a big deal. So, I just kept going. I like to just kind of tough it out.” If the author had carried out further analysis to what could have aggravated Ms Williams injury, he/she would have discovered that a few weeks earlier, she struggled with an ankle problem during her opening Hopman Cup match against Maria Sakkari. When the ankle injury is factored into JS analysis, his/her argument falls apart. From the moment she rolled her ankle, she was unable to get any points from her service games. Conversely, prior to the injury, Ms Williams had won 12 of the last 15 points on her serve.

You may argue, “But Serena said in an interview that her ankle was not the reason why she lost; she even said her opponent played, “unbelievable on match point.” If one is ready to accept this claim from Ms Williams, why is it then difficult to accept her claim in the same interview that she did not choke?

Besides the logical inaccuracy contained in JS’s article, the piece is also disrespectful to Ms Williams. The subheading of JS’s article states, “But previous psychological blips have not stopped her relentless success.” The author uses the adjectives angry, nervous and choker to modify the noun, Ms Williams.

After Ms Williams loss, the white media space extracted the word “choke” from the dictionary and placed it firmly on her head. The Herald Sun, which was condemned last year for posting a racist cartoon of Ms William, published an article titled, “Serena Williams’ epic choke officially the worst in women’s tennis history”. Queensland Times used the caption, “Serena in shocking Open choke “ to report the loss. The Western Journal used the headline, “Serena Williams Chokes Away Huge Lead in Stunning Australian Open Collapse,” while John McEnroe, the 7 times Grand Slam champion and now tennis commentator said that Serena Williams choked. Tagging Ms Williams with the label choker is a manifestation of the downgrading of black excellence by the white media, a key component of the white power structure. Due to its global reach, it has a huge say in framing opinions not only in the West but around the world. Ms Williams is one of the most mentally tough players on the tour, but the Western media has seized the opportunity of her recent loss to change the narrative. Instead of using game theory to analyse the chances of a woman winning a Grand Slam while pregnant who nearly dies after experiencing childbirth complications which resulted in four further surgeries and 17 months later is now ranked 11th seed having has reached two consecutive Grand Slam finals; the Economist is preoccupied with misanalysing flawed statistics to prove that Ms Williams is the greatest choker of all times.

Even though she has lost 136 times in her career, every loss comes within the crosshairs of white gaze which is later used to diminish her greatness. Conversely, other greats like Mr Federer and Nadal are not subject to such scrutiny. When she failed to complete the calendar Grand Slam after her loss to Roberta Vinci at the 2015 US Open, the USA Today described it as the biggest upset in tennis history while FiveThirtyEight described it as the biggest upset in modern Women’s tennis history. When she lost to Muguruza at the 2014 French Open, it was described as her worst loss since she was 16 years old. While the incident during her match against Osaka has been described as the worst temper tantrum in tennis history.

Downgrading black excellence while upholding white mediocrity is one of the hallmarks of white supremacy. Despite Ms Williams exploits and contribution to the game of tennis, the white power structure chooses to focus on what it perceives are her flaws. When she wins Grand Slam titles, she is body slammed and body shamed by New York Times; when she highlights sexism in the sports, she is caricatured as a “Hottentot Venus” by the Herald Sun. When she wins 12 Grand Slam titles, she is not the #GOAT unless she can catch up and overtake Navratilova and Evert’s 18 Grand Slam haul; when she surpasses the 18 Grand Slam hurdle, she is not considered the #GOAT unless she can catch up and overtake Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slam haul and when she surpasses the 22 Grand Slam hurdle, she is not regarded as the #GOAT unless she catches up and overtakes Margaret Court ‘s 24 Grand Slam title. And with 23 single Grand Slam titles, 14 doubles Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals, and 319 weeks as number one seed, CNN still asks the question, “After a remarkable comeback that featured two major finals and one epic controversy, can Serena Williams seal her place in the tennis books once and for all?”

No matter how much analysis and labelling the Western media does to diminish Ms Williams greatness it is too late because her place in history has already been settled. As a piece of advice, may I suggest that instead of joining the click bait bandwagon by putting a square economic games theory peg into a round tennis hole, the Economist should stick to what it knows best — offering authoritative insight and opinion on politics, business, finance, and the connections between them?

Selah.

Yours faithfully,

Ahmed Sule, CFA

January 2019

Writer and social critic