It was an iconic moment. Serena Williams, rolling on the green grass of Wimbledon after her 29th Grand Slam win. The 31-year-old African American and her sister, Venus, have been cutting-edge athletes, dominating the otherwise white sport of tennis since they burst on the scene in their teens in the late 1990s.
Their emergence was heralded as the inspiration for a generation of U.S. minority women and men to break the old image of pro tennis, a sport traditionally led by white Americans, Australians and Europeans. Through the prism of TV, the Williams sisters were writing a new epoch in tennis, one that would have young African American women choosing tennis.
But as Serena writhed in ecstasy in the grass of the All England Club on Saturday, the promised wave of exceptional young minority tennis players has yet to emerge. U.S. tennis is looking at a dearth of young players of any ethnicity. The televised image of the Williams’ sisters triumphs that was supposed to transform tennis has never materialized.
Instead, an army of young Russian, Serbian, Czech and Croatian women have taken over as the future of tennis.
It’s not an exceptional situation. Tiger Woods, for his part, was supposed to change the face of men’s golf. The greatest player of his generation, perhaps in history, Woods was going to have minority kids picking up golf clubs to emulate his example. Yet, as Woods embarked on his 16th season on the PGA Tour, he remains the only African American making a regular living on the tour. And despite programs to encourage minority athletes, golf’s enrolment numbers in the United States are dropping overall.
One of the givens of TV is that image eventually becomes reality. The ultimate example of changing society through sport was Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the colour barrier in baseball when he joined the Montreal Royals in 1946. It is an accepted tenet of liberal thought that Robinson’s visibility changed the colour of baseball, empowered black youth to take up the sport and succeed in making baseball a microcosm of society.
For a few decades, it looked as though Robinson had made baseball the No. 1 sport for young black athletes. But today, major-league baseball is losing the fight to keep African Americans choosing its sport. Eight per cent of major-league players are black in 2012, while the NFL (68 per cent) and NBA (80 per cent) are dominated by African Americans.
Despite its blanket TV coverage, baseball hasn’t produced a cultural figure who transcends the sport. (Ironically, Robinson played much of his career before TV took hold in U.S. homes.)
Obviously, tastes change over time, but the correlation of what we see on TV and what we see in sport isn’t automatic. Otherwise, the overwhelming success of the Williams sisters and Woods would have resulted in a stampede of minority kids following their televised example in the sport.
One of the problems with translating Serena’s success might be her attitude toward her own sport. She wrote on her website this year, “I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it …so I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere any time soon. … It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.”
If Andy Murray’s voyage into the men’s final at Wimbledon was any precursor of what we can expect at the Olympics in London this month, it’ll be a miracle if the British athletes survive the attentions of the Fleet Street press.
Being the first British man in the final in 74 years (“Magnificent Murray,” The Times warbled) set off that peculiar British insecurity that has inspired so many champions in ... well, they dominate at darts. “A nation will be praying that Andy Murray can deliver it,” The Telegraph said on the eve of Murray’s match against Roger Federer.
After Murray defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to reach the final, The Guardian proclaimed Murray “one step from heaven. …At times during the fourth set of this semi-final, it had been very different as the ghosts of past British failures at this stage began to stalk their thoughts as they murmured and muttered beneath darkening skies. But Murray held his nerve better than those watching.”
The Daily Mail could barely contain its gush. “Oh, the ecstasy. Andy Murray has done it. Finally. At last … Now can he finish the job?”
Um … no. He couldn’t. Federer won. Better take away everyone’s belts and shoe laces in Blighty.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler asked tennis analyst John McEnroe how players keep their composure after a bad bounce on Wimbledon’s battered grass courts. “I’m not one to ask about keeping your composure,” deadpanned Johnny Mac, the former enfant terrible.