Harris, Cecil. Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Pp. 243. 15 illustrations. $29.95 hardcover and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
The story of Serena and Venus Williams is as unprecedented as it is unlikely. Two Black sisters, coming from humble beginnings, have dominated a predominantly white sport, turning two generations of people of different races and ethnicities onto tennis. In other words, they have made tennis “cool,” becoming cultural and fashion icons precisely because they did not look like other tennis players. By wearing braids and simply not being “afraid to be black in tennis,” both were trail blazers, who, thanks to their incredible athleticism and tennis playing ability, simply forced the conservative tennis community to change. Their success sparked a revolution in professional tennis, as tournaments are now filled with diverse players who otherwise might have been overlooked due to their backgrounds or skin colors.
Venus was born in 1980 and Serena a year later. Trained by their father, Richard Williams, and homeschooled by their mother, Oracene Price, Serena and Venus went from the “cracked and weedy” courts of Compton to Wimbledon and Roland Garros. While their story was far more nuanced than the “ghetto Cinderellas” moniker suggests––they both went to private school as teenagers––the criticism they received at the beginning of their careers was deeply rooted in racism. In fact, much of it still is. Their father was painted by the media as standoffish and overconfident, while both sisters were singled out as being too expressive and too emotional. Yet by being so dominant, they left tennis establishment, fans, and media with little to do but to embrace them and their talents.
Serena was particularly impactful, as she challenged the beauty standards associated with the sport by not succumbing to the image of a skinny white girl. Muscular and thick, Serena put her figure on display, wearing tight outfits and oftentimes dressing in black. She made statements on the court with the way she looked. In turn, the media attention that she received served to further the conversation on gender and race in professional tennis. The popularity of both sisters, plus the ascension of Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka, shows that women’s professional tennis is as diverse and inclusive as never before.
However, as presented by Cecil Harris in his book Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), the revolution is far from complete. The on-court “product” is one thing, but, when it comes to umpires, executives, and journalists covering the sport, the numbers are far from what one might consider as indicative of change. With Katrina Adams becoming the first African American to serve as president and chair of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in 2015, one could be convinced that the USTA had moved far beyond the racial barriers that prohibited Blacks from even joining the ranks of the association in the first half of the twentieth century. Harris demonstrates that this is not the case, making the Williams’ domination the point of departure for his book and positioning it against the historical backdrop of Black tennis. He not only shows how their ascension would not have been possible without the strides made not only by Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe, but also with the efforts of many forgotten Black predecessors who never got the chance to show how good they actually were. While their parents devoted significant time and money to homeschooling the sisters and spending most of the family income on tennis lessons, the success enjoyed by Venus and Serena would be unattainable if they were born decades earlier.
The likes of Margaret and Roumania Peters and Ora Washington were highly-talented tennis players who dominated at ATA amateur events, but never were allowed to be paid for their play, as their white counterparts were. Nor did they receive the same level of recognition. Two biggest names to come out of the ATA program were Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Both were proteges of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, nicknamed “the Godfather of Black Tennis.” Johnson was convinced that, with time, the USTA’s mentality would change. He wanted his players to be always ready for a chance to show that Blacks were just as good, if not better, than whites at the game of tennis. Apart from training them how to play, he also taught them how to behave. This meant being respectful and modest in an effort to ensure that his players would be always invited back to any tournament that extended them an invitation. It also meant not reacting to racist actions and incidents, which is reminiscent of the way Jackie Robinson was able to break down racial barriers in baseball because of how he absorbed racially-motivated abuses from fans, as well as fellow players.
Ashe was labeled as “the nice guy,” even though politeness was primarily the means he used to win over white fans and erode the racial prejudices that prevented those that came before him from making their mark on international tennis. Nevertheless, “the nice guy” Ashe did challenge the tennis establishment. He not only played in clubs where he was the only Black person, but also spoke out when Black spectators were not allowed to attend his events. He also went to South Africa, making a statement against apartheid and the white minority that controlled the country’s Black majority. After contracting HIV, he became a spokesperson against the virus, raising awareness thanks to his popularity. The main stadium at the U.S. Open is named after him, a sign of deep respect that Ashe, who died in 1993, enjoys in the tennis community.
This was not the case with Althea Gibson, who was never fully appreciated during her lifetime and has been honored only recently. Appearing on the tennis scene a decade before Ashe, she was denied entry to the women’s locker rooms and forced to dine alone before interracial tennis matches. As if the adversity she had to face during matches was not enough, she was criticized by some members of the Black community for not taking the tennis world by storm as soon as she was allowed to participate in (up to that point) all-white competitions. Gibson also refused to speak out on behalf of African Americans, thinking that her being Black in a white sport and winning against white opponents was enough of a statement. She still had to work as a teacher for a living, with tennis being more of an extracurricular activity despite her appearing in numerous tournaments. Near destitute at the end of her life after lacking a reliable source of income, she did receive more than $1 million from the tennis community.
While these stories are fairly known, Harris also digs deeper into narratives that have not been as well as explored, putting them in proper contexts. One such story is that of Tony Nimmons, a former umpire who had to quit his job after exposing issues of racial discrimination in the USTA. An umpire is not really paid all that much, even one as good as Nimmons. He officiated more than 2,000 matches, including working the U.S. Open for twenty consecutive years. Yet, he never got to officiate a singles final. Only one person of African-American descent had officiated a final––Sande French, who was the umpire for the September 1993 final between Steffi Graff and Helena Sukova. The following year, French was assigned line-duty during the tournament, with the new president of the USTA claiming she did not deserve to work the final the year prior. Nimmons, despite holding the highest rank among officials––the gold badge––was never given a chance to work the most important singles game. After his travel privileges were revoked and he lost his position in the umpire rankings, Nimmons left the profession.
While tennis’ diversity situation was presented as solved when Adams became the president of the USTA, employing one African American person in a prominent position is far from enough to put the issue to rest. Harris’ book further confirms that diversity remains a problem in corporate America, one that only pressure, as well as fear of being painted as racist, can begin to change. Even though social change indeed has occurred––both in tennis and society––racism still perseveres. Hence, the revolution is far from complete.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).