Black History Month Feature of the Week: Celebrating Serena Williams and Katrina Adams

February 14, 2015

On February 1, 2015, I shared a video with my Facebook friends of Serena Williams’ classy and heartfelt speech after winning the 2015 Australian Open Women’s Singles Tennis Championship (https://www.facebook.com/#!/video.php?v=10153512475856102&set=vb.26081741101&type=2&theater). I’ve been following Serena and Venus Williams since the sisters first exploded onto the world courts of tennis—an astonishing 20 and 21 years ago, respectively. I’ve been bowled over by their evolution from “curiosities” to Queens of this sport.

However, it wasn’t until the middle of this week (February 11) that I remembered how difficult an evolution this has been.

By chance, I saw Tamron Hall’s piece on MSNBC’s NewsNation about another news-making Black woman tennis player, Katrina Adams, the new President of the U.S. Tennis Association (http://www.msnbc.com/newsnation/watch/katrina-adams-makes-tennis-history-397382211586). In this interview, Hall and Adams briefly discussed Serena Williams’ recent decision to return to Indian Wells, California, a venue she has not played since 1998. Adams said that she also had played at Indian Wells, but she had not experienced the overtly racist response that Serena and her family had experienced.

These twin stories about the “Black presence” in tennis are a prime example of The Black Experience and The Human Experience. They are the antidote to Langston Hughes’ “deferred” dream. And I nearly missed them both.

I was not aware of how deeply the Williams family had been hurt by their first experience playing at Indian Wells back in 1998, when Serena was just 19 years old. I only vaguely remember the incident, and I had not yet heard of or read Serena’s own recounting of her past racial wound (http://time.com/3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/#3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/). It seems so far removed from her current standing as one of the rightful Queens of tennis, not to mention her ebullient grace and poise in Australia just two weeks ago.

It was a racial wound so deep that she vowed never to play at Indian Wells again—all because Serena and Venus were supposed to play against each other, but Venus had to bow out due to an injury. The White fan base assumed that the match was somehow fixed, and they turned on Serena as if she was the featured “red meat” at the Roman Colosseum.

We all know what happens when you “assume” something: “u” make an “ass” out of “me.” But an uninformed assumption has the capacity to permanently destroy one’s confidence and denigrate one’s accomplishments and legacy. Just ask the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team.

In the case of Serena Williams, however, a strong family and community and a lifetime of hard work, intelligence, focus, success, and even failures have prepared her for a decisive and delicious personal triumph when she returns to Indian Wells this year. I can’t wait to see her there.

Katrina Adams is a name I’ve never seen or heard in my lifelong, albeit superficial, love of tennis. With no fanfare outside of the sports universe (except, perhaps, for Tamron Hall’s salute), Ms. Adams became “the first African-American and first former professional tennis player to serve as the association’s Chairman of the Board, CEO and President, when she took the position in January 2015” (http://www.usta.com/About-USTA/who_we_are/?intloc=footernavsub).

The USTA happens to be the governing body of all things tennis in the United States. And a Black Woman is now at the helm.

On the NewsNation segment, Tamron Hall highlighted one of Katrina Adams’ missions: to expand opportunities for Black—and Hispanic—youth to learn and grow in the sport of tennis, so that they can benefit from (1) the skills and disciplines of the game, (2) more varied opportunities for sports scholarships to college, and (3) a more truly diverse field of players in the professional ranks. Because, despite the “diversity” currently afforded by the Williams sisters and a few up-and-coming players or, in previous generations, by the likes of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe (whose own “first” at Wimbledon occurred 40 years ago), the world of tennis remains largely white (as white as the shorts and polo shirts that used to be the standard dress for professional tennis players).

Ms. Adams has personally taken on her “diversity” mission by leading tennis classes in underserved communities, using modified equipment (larger racquets and balls) that she has helped develop, to make today’s kids’ introduction to this “elite” sport a much more inviting and palatable experience than it was when even Serena and Venus Williams started playing, not that long ago.

For their contributions to sports, to Black culture, and to World culture—and on this day of Love—I salute Serena Williams and Katrina Adams.

AUTHOR's NOTE: I am not now, nor have I ever been, an athlete. But in college, I took a semester of Tennis 101 in partial fulfillment of the Physical Education requirement. My teacher once said to me, "You've got great form! Now...If only you could hit the ball!" I answered, "Unfortunately, I only have sight in one eye. So my depth perception is not what it should be." But in my dreams....

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