Week 15: Tennis

The readings I chose this week discussed the globally celebrated sport of Tennis, specifically focusing on the unique abilities, identities, and contributions of two tennis greats, Serena Williams and Bill Tilden. The first article, “The Meaning of Serena Williams” written by Claudia Rankine, is not simply a review of the countless trophies, awards, corporate partnerships, and athletic achievements that have become synonymous with the tennis star each time she steps on the court. While that is undoubtedly a major part of Serena’s celebrity identity and what she inherently embodies, winning at the highest level was not always apart of her journey or what people recognized about her talent. As a Black woman playing a sport that was historically identified with the white upper-class, Serena has been forced to constantly battle more than just her opponents for respect and accreditation. In order to understand why Serena’s excellence seems incomparable, it is first necessary to recognize that she has had to not only train excessively in order to become the greatest tennis player of all time, but she also has to work equally as hard to receive fair treatment from unjust officials, the media, and organizational leaders who still favor a tennis match that is dominated by skinny, blond, white women. Serena Williams was not raised in a six-figure income household that could pay for the best tennis instructor and physical therapist, nor was she born with a body-type or personality that is easily swallowed or accepted within the traditional standards of European civility. She is the opposite of everything that tennis has been defined as throughout history; ultimately, that is exactly what makes her success and her distinct excellence so unimaginable, powerful, and revolutionary. Serena William’s is the definition of black excellence, and her unapologetic nature is what will subsequently re-shape the ideals of tennis into a more inclusive, diverse, and highly competitive sport than it already is.

The second article, “Taking Punishment Gladly: Bill Tilden’s Performances of the Unruly Male Body” written by Nathan Titman, analyzes another historically prominent contributor to the game of Tennis, Bill Tilden. Tilden, a seemingly attractive, highly athletic white man, had dominated men’s tennis throughout the 1920’s and was not attacked with discriminatory messages within the media or by spectators due to his physical attributes. Instead, his internalized battle with homosexuality caused the star to oppress an innate side of himself in order to achieve his impressive athletic goals and to fit within the normative expectations of hyper-masculinity. Homophobia and the restrictive ideals of masculinity deeply influenced and structured both American society, but also competitive sports in general. Despite Tilden’s highly controversial identity being hidden away until the mid 1940’s, the author analyzes how the tennis icon’s playing style and on-court persona was indicative of his boundary-pushing existence, and the fluidity of his sexuality and gender. Although Bill Tilden undoubtedly felt the pressures of societal acceptance and held a fear of retaliation from countless different sources of power, causing him to fervently hide his true identity for decades, he was still able to achieve a ranking within the exclusive list of tennis superiority, and his iconic legacy remains undisputed among those who achieved greatness afterwards. No one could ever take away his achievements on the court, and to him, as well as for Serena Williams and countless other great athletes that faced adversity within their sport, their uniqueness and method of self-expression within a normative system is ultimately what will keep their legacy alive for generations to come.

One thought on “Week 15: Tennis

  1. Hi Emma,
    You did a fantastic job of analyzing these articles and bringing them together with a central theme. It’s really important that you mentioned tennis as a upper class white sport. Williams and Tilden both had great success on the court while battling stereotypes that still aren’t fully accepted today. However, their greatness on the court coupled with their recognizable style and expression forces them to be remembered in the record books for all future athletes to come.

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