Race in Tennis is not discussed as often as it is in other sports global sports like Soccer, track and field or even… American Football. It just isn’t. There’s apparently no room for such trivial topics in “the gentleman’s game”. Players are at worst, cordial with each other and at best they are bffs who can’t stop taking pictures of every activity they practically do together – ahem Serena and Caroline. Ethnicity, race, nationality? All those divides seem to have been long conquered in Tennis’s professional world.
However, what if some of this… camaraderie was only an act? Call me pessimistic, but when I discussed the subject of race in tennis with a friend a while back, I remember expressing my disbelief that something so insidious and tough – racism has survived over 400 years of modern history – could be rooted out so easily. Racism is the social virus, man has struggled to get rid off. It evolves, adapts, and even regresses for a while but just when we relax, it rears its ugly head again.
This is exactly what happened last week, when Romania’s Fed Cup coach, Ilie Nastase made some out of place comments about the skin color of Serena William’s unborn baby. Not only were his comments and subsequent “if I say” comments hurtful, disrespectful, insensitive and dare I say dehumanizing, they were regressive. They shelved off a bit of the unifying power of sport – of Tennis. I am one of those people who believes Serena Williams has taken a lot of unwarranted antagonism particularly from so-called Tennis lovers. Reading a typical racist or chauvinistic comment from a ‘fan’ about Serena Williams, is rather repulsive within itself. To read it from a prominent ex-player is quite disturbing. This isn’t what it means to be ‘human’. Moreover, one of the sport’s all-time greats, deserves better than that.
Ilie Nastase’s comments might have ripped a tear in the fabric of reality most of us would like to believe. Racism is still here, underneath the surface, waiting to bubble up at the slightest opportunity. The viral count might be down, but it isn’t zero and if nothing is done about it, there will be a relapse. Which is why it warmed my heart to see the backlash the Romanian Fed Cup coach got and still is getting. It was a joy to see Serena stand up for herself, her baby and her fellow female players, like Johanna Konta. It was especially rewarding to read about Simona Halep’s honest and defiant stance against her own coach, calling it like it was. That is the kind of reaction needed to fight this ugly disease in our beloved sport. I’m looking forward to more players – especially the prominent ones – lending a voice to tell the Ilie Nastase’s of this world that racism has no place in tennis.
The Romanian might be a star bad boy, and maybe a bad man, but in this sport, good gentlemen rule. Let’s keep it that way.