She was playing the US Open women’s final, when the chair umpire issued a warning for a code violation for receiving coaching. Her coach later admitted that he was signaling, but that she had not seen him. She and the umpire had a civil exchange, and it seems that Serena understood that he had rescinded the warning. He hadn’t. A few games later, when she broke her racket in frustration over a play, she was shocked to receive a second warning, with a point docked at the start of her next game.
She stalked over to the chair, demanding an apology: “I have never cheated in my life! I have a daughter and I stand [for] what’s right for her! I have never cheated. You owe me an apology. You will never do another one of my matches!” She continued to challenge the initial warning for coaching, accusing him of attacking her character and demanding an apology. She called him a liar, and then she called him a thief. And that was when the umpire issued the third code violation, resulting in the loss of a game.
To put Serena’s outburst into context, she was returning to the game following a harrowing birthing experience. This is something that male athletes can never understand. Here’s a recap on the difficult delivery and the life-threatening post-partum: After her contractions began, the baby’s heart rate started falling and an emergency cesarean section was performed. Not exactly the ideal scenario, but a common procedure that went smoothly. The baby was born, the cord was cut, and little Olympia was laid on her mother’s chest. Then, in Serena’s words, “Everything went bad.”
Serena has a history of blood clots, and because of this, she takes blood thinners. She went off these after the C-section to facilitate the healing of the surgical wound. The day after delivery, she began gasping. Flagging a nurse in the hall, she requested an IV with a blood thinner and a CT scan for clots. The nurse just thought she was confused. A doctor arrived and did an ultrasound. Serena reiterated, “I told you I need a CT scan and a heparin drip.” At this point, the scan was performed, and, indeed, she had clots in her lungs, and the appropriate medication was given.
So this was just last fall, less than year ago. In July Serena spoke out about the fact she is being drug-tested as much as five times more frequently than any other star tennis player.
And then, there was the issue of her tennis outfit. She stepped onto the court at the French Open in a special, full-body compression suit designed to prevent blood clots. Serena explained, “All the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything. That’s what this represents. You can’t beat a catsuit, right?” The French indicated she had gone “too far” and banned her from wearing it. She responded with a one-shoulder-bared, black tutu and compression fishnets.
It was the personal breaking point that became a cultural tipping point.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King agreed with Serena, tweeting, ‘‘When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it .’’ King noted that male players with similar outbursts are characterized as ‘‘outspoken,’’ with no repercussions.
The Women’s Tennis Association backed up Serena’s claims of sexism with this statement: “The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men v women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done.”
The president of the United States Tennis Association also backed Serena: “We watch the guys do this all the time, they’re badgering the umpire on the changeovers. Nothing happens. There’s no equality. I think there has to be some consistency across the board. These are conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks.”
And all of this reminds me of another Black female athlete who was the subject of massive discrimination, and her breaking point—which was, sadly, so far ahead of her time that it did not result in a tipping point. Except for those of us who have used her example to arrive at our own moments of transformation.
I am talking about French former competitive figure skater Surya Bonaly. Originally a competitive gymnast, she began skating at the age of eleven. She eventually became three-time World silver medalist, a five-time European champion, and a nine-time French national champion. She was a three-time Olympian.
The “jumping?” Practically unmatched in ambition. Surya was the first female skater to attempt a quadruple jump in competition, even though they were counted as triples, because they fell just shy of four full rotations. But the jump that really put her on the map was the “Bonaly backflip,” which is a backflip landed on one blade. Banned in competition, but a huge crowd-pleaser. In other words, Surya was muscular, daring, and athletic. Figure skating evolved in the late eighteenth century in Europe, incorporating elements of the ballet into circles and figure eights. These balletic roots led to an aesthetic that privileges elegance, lithe physiques, and a feminine ideal reminiscent of ballerinas. Surya’s skating is unapologetically powerful. The same kind of body-type prejudices that kept African American women out of classical ballet companies were applied to Surya.
Also, her costumes were usually showier than those of her competitors. She favored bold and unusual colors, with lots of sparkle. In spite of the fact that the judges favored tights, Surya skated barelegged. Possibly the tights she needed did not come in her skin tones.
Unlike Serena, Surya’s breaking point had come decades before the #MeToo movement was exposing the institutionalized misogyny in the entertainment industry, and also decades before Black producers began to gain control over the representation of their culture and icons in the media.
It was totally illegal… and legendary. As one Canadian newspaper put it, it was “the most elaborate expletive in Olympic history.” The Washington Post was even more explicit: “Bonaly was making a statement not only as an accomplished skater, but also as a black athlete in one of the world’s whitest sports.”
Here is what I wish for all the underrepresented women in the world: May your breakdowns become tipping points, and whenever your excellence lies off the visible light spectrum of institutions obsessed with color, may you never be afraid to show off and celebrate your brilliance… because you can, and because history will catch up and remember.