Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes from a Tennis Obsessed Corner of the Midwest

January for me means one thing and one thing only: tennis season officially begins with the first Major (Grand Slam) tournament of the season: the Australian Open. Living in Chicago, I watch the tournament coverage with longing, drooling over the 80-90-degree temps and rooting for my favorite players. Last night, I watched one of the women’s quarterfinal matches, this one featuring Venus Williams (USA) and Li Na (China). I’ve pretty much enjoyed Venus since she and her sister Serena came on the scene in the late 90s. But I’ve had a soft spot for Li since I saw her play Lindsay Davenport on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open 8 years ago.

Anyway, as I sat there watching Li and Venus go through what was truly a crazy match (6 consecutive breaks of serve!), it occurred to me that, for the first time in a long time, I was watching two POC women compete in the latter stages of a Grand Slam tournament. When watching Li or Venus in a match, the opponent across the net is usually white. So, I paused my live feed to savor this moment. I’ve followed tennis very closely for the past 12 years and in that time, very few POCs (on the men’s or the women’s side) have emerged as contenders for titles. After being down and almost beaten, Li won the match and will now play Serena in the semi-finals. In the other semi-final, Li’s countrywoman, Zheng Jie will play recently unretired Justine Henin. My prediction: Serena and Henin will prevail to book their first ever Grand Slam final match (the two have 18 Majors between them, but to date have only competed at the quarterfinal and semi-final stages of a Grand Slam).

The fact that two Chinese women are now in the semi-finals of a Major is on my mind: 1) because the tennis media are wetting themselves talking about the milestone and 2) because the coverage is illuminating some interesting biases.

Take this Yahoo!Sports article about Li and Zheng’s achievement. The reporter goes out of his way to note that both players have benefited from leaving the Chinese tennis federation and hiring foreign coaches (both of whom are white). The implication, of course, is that things are so backward and awful in China that thank goodness these white coaches were there to rescue benighed players like Li and Zheng.

This kind of self-congratulatory tone (oooh, look two Chinese players made it into the semis, isn't our sport so magnanimous and open-minded) is rampant in almost all the press coverage of Li and Zheng. Not only is it nauseating, it fails to look at why it took till 2010 for two Chinese players to make it this far in a Major tournament.

But this is quite typical of discussions surrounding minorities breaking down racial barriers in any field. There's allusion to the fact that the barriers exist, but no discussion of how said barriers were erected in the first place (the coverage of the Williams sisters' emergence is probably the most notable example of this).

In any event, I will celebrate the fact that this year's Australian Open quarterfinal featured FOUR women of color as competitors. It's a small, but significant step in the right direction.

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