The changing face of British tennis?
As Murray mania sweeps the country, OBV’s Philippa de Lacy considers questions of national identity and covert racism in tennis today.
While racism in football has become headline news in 2012, a blanket silence on race envelops what many describe as the ultimate tennis tournament: Wimbledon. With overwhelmingly white, middle-class crowds and commentators, Wimbledon has two dominant narratives. The very British strawberries and cream, Pimm’s or champagne, umbrellas and queuing and “anyone for (lawn) tennis?” is juxtaposed to the cut-throat pace of the circuit, encapsulated by the sponsorship deals, magazine spreads, and off-court media frenzy that glamorises the top players.
Like Euro 2012 or the Jubilee, Wimbledon reveals two facets of Britishness – tradition and heritage alongside consumerism and the cult of celebrity. Neither grants much space to consider the ongoing challenge of race inequality. Today, with plenty of non-white players at the top of the profession, it might be easy to claim that tennis is a sport that has progressed beyond issues of race discrimination.
Top quality international tennis has not been immune to instances of racism. The Williams sisters have boycotted the Indian Wells tennis tournament since encountering racist heckling in 2001. In the same year at the US Open, the Australian Grand Slam star Lleyton Hewitt was playing against African-American opponent James Blake. Hewitt demanded that a black line judge be ejected from the court, accusing him of discriminating because of the two men’s “similarity”. This racial slur arguably cost Blake the match, although Hewitt maintained he had been misunderstood.
In official commentary, racism is more surreptitious. Serena and Venus have been praised for their “natural” athleticism. The sisters’ “more powerful” or even “more wild” play is pitted against their blonde, white competitors. BBC analysis of Maria Sharapova’s tennis finds her to be strategic, business minded and an “ice-queen” beauty. Even when not overtly derogatory, these commentaries are born from lazy assumptions and stereotypes about black and white female bodies. Though not overtly crude, an incipient racial bias at Wimbledon is no less real and potentially more dangerous than the grotesque tweets targeted at footballers because it is more difficult to identify and challenge.
Despite this, in 2012 there is reason to celebrate. The new face of British tennis is Heather Watson, the first British woman to make the third round of Wimbledon in a decade. Enormous attention has been paid to the young British star, even after her defeat against the number three seed Agnieszka Radwanska. However, each and every story in the national press has not failed to highlight not only that Watson is from Guernsey, but, specifically, that her father is from Manchester and her mother is from Papua New Guinea.
Likewise, during Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s fourth round match against Mardy Fish, the BBC coverage alluded to the “love story” of his parents. Instead of focusing on the impressive play that was unfolding, viewers learnt that Tsonga’s father was a Ghanaian chemistry student who came to France to study, where he met Tsonga’s mother, “and the rest is history”.
The story of both Watson and Tsonga’s origins is not only irrelevant to their performances on court. Their heritage is an object of inquiry that the majority of tennis players do not face. A fascination with non-white tennis players’ national status is not explicitly racist - but this is the crux of the problem; most commentators and spectators do not have a grasp of what it is to endure racism and therefore do not imagine that the problem persists.
An emphasis on Watson and Tsonga’s family background is not an innocuous means for fans to simply learn more about the stars. It detracts attention from the players’ professional skill. More broadly, the coverage of this year’s Wimbledon exposes a British anxiety surrounding nationality and immigration. In an interview after her defeat, Watson expressed the desire to “keep playing for my country”. She should be allowed to do so without underhand queries as to exactly “how British” is this young, talented Brit?
Philippa de Lacy