Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova: We Have NOT Come a Long Way Baby
- a person who is competing for the same object or goal as another, or who tries to equal or outdo another; competitor.
- a person or thing that is in a position to dispute another’s preeminence or superiority.
‘Beauty? To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.” Beauty was a mystery even to painter Pablo Picasso.
Contemporary concepts of beauty are inherently racialized and are the product of centuries of European colonialism. Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer in a 2010 book wrote “[y]ou are not born with a race in the same way you are born with fingers and eyes and hair. Fingers and eyes and hair are natural creations,…race is a social fabrication.” According to them prior to “the sixteenth century, race as we know it today, did not exist.” (pg.51). They characterize the development of the racial social fabrication project in the United States in this manner, “[w]hiteness and blackness were invented as antipodes within the context of English, and later American slavery”( pg.95).
Today in the twenty-first century we are still using racial concepts invented in the sixteenth century to categorize and place value on human beings. In our ongoing racial drama white women have been cast as the beautiful, desirable, respectable heroines, while black women have been cast as the ugly, least desirable, and unworthy of respect step-sisters. White women are the norm, the beauty standard to which all other women are compared. We can see how racialized, Eurocentric concepts of beauty and femininity influence the differences in the public perception and media portrayal of tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams and Sharapova are “antipodes,” who represent two vastly different aesthetics. The white, blond and slim Maria Sharapova has won four majors and is currently ranked the number two player in the world. However, she has been unable to legitimately dispute Serena Williams’ preeminence as the greatest female tennis player right now, and perhaps of all-time. Serena Williams, black with a muscular and curvaceous body, holds a 14-2 record against Sharapova. For nine years Serena has defeated Sharapova in quarterfinals, semi-finals, Olympic and grand slam matches with outrageous score lines, 6-1, 6-2, in the 2007 Australian Open final and 6-0, 6-1 in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match. Where a rivalry truly exists between the two women is off-the court, in the competition for marketing dollars.
Serena, the number one-ranked player, is undeniably the best female player in tennis right now, although she has not earned endorsement revenue in the manner of her male counterpart for the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) title, Roger Federer, or other athletes who are or have been the best in their field like Tiger Woods or LeBron James. This is because she is both black and a woman. While Roger Federer is white, the other two athletes are black and male. According to Forbes:
“Federer has the most impressive endorsement portfolio in sports, with 10 sponsors that collectively pay him more than $40 million annually, including long-term deals with Nike, Rolex, Wilson and Credit Suisse.”
While being the best in one’s field is good enough for male athletes, for female athletes the market also requires that they also be “attractive” and “desirable.” In fact, for the female athlete, being attractive can trump the need to excel. Witness the case of hurdler Lolo Jones, who has more endorsement deals than her primarily African-American track-and-field competitors and U.S. Olympic teammates, in two consecutive Olympics Jones has failed to bring home the gold, or even the bronze. Jones, who is of “French, African-American, Native American and Norwegian descent,” is fair-complexioned with blonde hair. She offers her sponsors an acceptable Eurocentric appearance, which they can be comfortable with. Whiteness or the approximation of whiteness is a lucrative commodity in the sports and entertainment world.
Cameron Russell, a model who has worked for Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and who has been featured in the pages of Vogue and worked the fashion runways of the likes of Chanel, Prada and Versace, recently stated.
“The real way that I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy. What do I mean by legacy? Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing in on.”
This is also a legacy that the likes of Sharapova and race car driver Danica Patrick have also been cashing in on, whiteness, attractiveness, and willingness to use sexuality as a marketing total, has created a steady revenue stream for both women.
In a 2012, Fortune article entitled, “Sex, muscles, basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?” Shelley DuBois wrote:
“Today, more than 3 million high school girls play sports. Women now comprise nearly 40% of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participation. Yet they see many more male athlete role models than professional athletic women on television and in ads. It all comes down to marketability; Americans won’t forget you if a company can sell you. But four decades after Title IX and 16 years since the launch of the WNBA, organizations are still figuring out how to attract consumers by marketing female pro athletes, especially those who might not conform to traditional notions of femininity.”
Sharapova in her 12-year professional career has won each of the four majors once. For her very first, the 2004 Wimbledon title she defeated Serena in the final. The 2004 Wimbledon victory transformed Sharapova into the sports marketing world’s golden girl. ESPN tennis writer Greg Garber described it this way:
“Sharapova, …became the biggest thing in tennis with a victory in early July at Wimbledon (over Serena Williams, no less), … She is a marketing dream, combining Anna Kournikova’s off-court game with Williams’ power and mental toughness between the lines.” Anna Kournikova, a former Russian blond tennis player, who at one time, “was pulling in $15 million a year in endorsements despite never winning a professional tournament.”
Sports journalist Will Swanton, writing in The Australian newspaper, provided his assessment of the true reasons behind the recent public feud between Sharapova and Serena on the eve of the Wimbledon Championships.
“The truth is a fascinating psychological study. Williams dislikes Sharapova because no matter how many matches and titles the world No 1 wins, she can never be what she also pines to be: the most beautiful and glamorous figure in the sport. Sharapova loathes Williams because even though the Russian is the richest and one of the most alluring sportswomen in the world, the face of Porsche and Evian and the focus of countless magazine covers, she would swap it all to be the greatest female player who ever lived.”
Now it is important to note that Swanton is white and male, white patriarchy is behind the social fabrication of race, and white men continue to be overrepresented in positions of power in every field in the public and private sector, white males continue to frame and define our understanding of the world. Swanton subjects Serena to his white male gaze and finds her lacking. Just this Saturday when the white French tennis player Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon ladies championship, Sports Illustrated reported that John Inverdale, a white male radio journalist made the following comment during his broadcast;
“John Inverdale asked listeners on BBC Radio, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight. ”When told of the comments Bartoli remarked “It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”
We have not come a long way in terms of the criteria we use to analyze women in the public arena and in how women’s professional accomplishments are discussed. When a man achieves something notable there is never any concern or discussion about whether or not he is a “looker.” Men are given the privilege of being judged and appraised on their ability and achievements. People continue to perceive ‘looks’ as an acceptable criterion on which to judge a woman, no matter how extraordinary her professional accomplishments.
If Mr. Swanton is to be believed Serena is not the “most beautiful and glamorous,” woman in the sport of tennis. He is expressing a personal opinion likely shared by many others; that Serena has the talent and the greatness, but Sharapova has the beauty. Search the internet for any news story on Serena Williams, whether it is about her winning a championship or committing an on-court faux-pas, many of the readers’ comments will carry the same themes and language. Many will use words like “monkey,” to describe Williams suggesting also that perhaps she is a “man,” or on steroids. If the news story includes Sharapova, there are sure to be comments lauding Sharapova’s attractiveness in comparison to Williams. Swanton feels comfortable making his assertion, and assuming that everyone will agree with him that Maria Sharapova is the “most beautiful and glamorous” woman in the sport of tennis because Sharapova exactly matches the Eurocentric model of beauty that is consistently venerated by Hollywood films, advertisers, and magazines in his country Australia, in Europe, the United States, and many other places.
The story of Maria vs. Serena exists in a specific socio-historical context, but journalists and sports writers have failed to analyze the imagined rivalry in the proper context. When the professional rivalry between male tennis players Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, is discussed there is no mention of their looks or of them pining to be the most handsome and glamorous man in tennis. A male athlete’s marketability is based on his ability to make male sports spectators desire to emulate his achievements “be like Mike,” while a female athlete’s marketability is based on her ability to make male sports spectators desire her.
Serena has won 16 grand slam titles and earned $20 million more than Sharapova in total career prize money. However, when it comes to endorsement money Sharapova is the Queen. According to Forbes Magazine’s 2013 annual list of the highest paid athletes in the world Maria Sharapova is the 22nd highest earning athlete in the world, while Serena is ranked 68th. In fact, only three female athletes made the list, all tennis players, Sharapova, Williams, and Chinese player Li Na. Li Na ranks 85th overall with earnings of $18.2 million,” according to Forbes. The income disparity comes in endorsement money, while Serena earned $2 million dollars more than Maria in 2012 prize money, Maria earned $11 million dollars more than Serena in endorsement money.
One can easily argue that the world of women’s tennis is filled with attractive Eastern European blondes (Daniella Hantuchova, Maria Kirelenko) who are not earning tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money like the Russian-born Sharapova. For example, Victoria Azarenka, the number three ranked player in the world, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and earned 7.9 million in prize money in 2012, was not even included in the Forbes list of highest-earning athletes. She is signed to Nike, just like Williams and Sharapova. Azarenka also has endorsement deals with American Express and Citizen watches. While Azarenka is young, blond, and has won grand slams like Sharapova, she has not significantly engaged in marketing her sexuality and validating “traditional notions of femininity’ in the manner of Sharapova. Azarenka and Sharapova are both outfitted for the tennis court by Nike, for the 2012 Australian Open Nike dressed Azarenka in shorts while Sharapova was attired in a traditional tennis dress. Sharapova posed for the 2006 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and appeared in the June 2013 of Esquire Latin America adorned in a bikini. She has been very willing to play the sex symbol role that has been created for her.
Having athletes act-out the racial anxieties and desires of society is not a recent phenomenon. Journalist and sports historian David Zirin writes that when:
“[Jack] Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis in the conventional wisdom about race. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for “a great white hope” (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world-and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” (pg. 42).
Jeffries ended up being defeated by Johnson. The search for an athlete who could be the “great white hope” continued. Seven decades after the Johnson-Jeffries fight, there emerged a basketball white hope in the form of Larry Bird, matched with a black rival named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Bird of Indiana State and Johnson of Michigan State played against each other in the 1979 NCAA college basketball championship game, a game deemed the highest-rated televised college basketball game ever. Bird and Johnson would go on to become storied rivals as professional players in the NBA, in the 1980s. Sportswriter Andy Katz writes:
“…the Lakers and Celtics battled for NBA supremacy throughout the 1980s. Bird represented Boston, a blue-collar city. Magic’s GQ persona was the right fit in Hollywood. It didn’t hurt that Bird was white, playing in Boston, a city with a history of racial intolerance. It certainly helped that Magic was in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.”
Just as Johnson stood in the boxing arena embodying black hopes and Jeffries stood there with him in 1908 as the “Great White Hope” embodying white desires and white anxiety, in 2004 Williams stood on Wimbledon’s center court embodying black hopes, while Sharapova stood opposing her on the other side of the court, as the Nouveaux “great white hope.” Sharapova emerged victorious that day, calming white anxiety and fulfilling white hopes. However, this is not to suggest that Sharapova herself plays tennis to affirm any kind of racial superiority, she is a fierce competitor who is playing for her own reward.
Serena’s father Richard Williams claims it was watching the winner of a tennis tournament receive a large prize check on television that inspired him to start to train his daughters Venus and Serena to become tennis players. He most likely was not naive enough to believe that when his daughters arrived in the predominantly white tennis world, as two dark-complexioned black girls from Compton, California, with braided hair adorned with beads that they were going to be solely judged by the content of their character and the quality of their backhands. Race is an inescapable, integral, oppressive part of his daughters triumphant, yet to conclude story. Everyone has a legacy; some get a legacy they get to cash in on and others inherit a legacy that they have to overcome.
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