PERCEPTION, THE GREAT DECEIVER (Occasional Sports’ Moment: #30)

Some time in the past couple of years, someone ( I think it was Chris Fowler) asked tennis announcer, and former player, Mary Jo Fernandez, whether Simona Halep, who was playing that day, was faster than Serena Williams, who wasn’t.

Fernandez immediately and unequivocally said Serena was faster.

She specifically said she thought Serena was faster sprinting from the baseline to the net (which is the longest sprint routinely made in tennis).

In my lonely room, a world away, I immediately said: “That’s crazy.”

It’s been a common occurrence, over the last fifteen years, for announcers covering a women’s tennis match to talk a lot about Serena Williams, whether she is playing or not. It’s also been common for announcers to talk about Serena in terms that treat her as existing somewhere off the human scale.

Simona Halep is one of the fastest players in the history of the WTA (easily top five, possibly top three, which I can say with some confidence since I’ve been following the tour, which began in the late sixties, religiously since the early seventies). She is, moreover, in her mid-twenties’ physical prime and has had no serious injuries.

Serena, at the time of Fernandez’s crazy talk, was well into her thirties, has had numerous injuries to her legs, and several surgeries on her knees and feet. She was probably never as fast as Simona Halep and is nowhere near as fast now.

The question itself, who is faster right now, wasn’t even a sensible one–or wouldn’t have been, if tennis announcers were used to seeing Serena Williams through a human lens, rather than some combination of Super Woman and Spoiled Child.

So why was it nonsensically asked?

And why was it answered even more nonsensically?

Because Serena Williams is….black. That’s why. Oh, and Simona Halep is white.

And, you know, black people are faster than white people. At least across short distances. Look at those sprint results in the Olympics. Look at those receivers in the NFL. Look at those base-stealing records in Major League Baseball.

And, because black people (at least those of West African descent) are, in fact, demonstrably faster across short distances than white people (look again at those sprint records), it follows that the black woman you see playing tennis (a sport where sprinter speed is awful handy) at an elite level, must be faster than even the fastest white woman playing the same sport at the same level at the same time.

In other words, this person…

cannot be faster than this person (and significantly faster at that)…

…because that would be a confusing, if not unacceptable, narrative.

I only bring this up now because proof has emerged and because I have a small point to make.

Mary Jo Fernandez, whose observation basically went unchallenged (Fowler–I still think it was him–only expressed some surprise that she was so certain) and would have been accepted by ninety-nine percent of the people who cover tennis (Martina Navratilova, who has a knack for seeing things as they are and not being afraid to speak of what she sees, might be an exception) is crazy.

The linked article shows a study done at the Australian Open across several years.

The study shows, conclusively, that Halep is the fastest player on the WTA.

No duh.

Serena is in the middle of the pack–is, in fact, a touch slower than Maria Sharapova, who has never played a match without some “expert” mentioning that “movement is not her strong suit.” (Angie Kerber, the woman who incidentally took the top spot in the world rankings from Serena in 2016, has the most consistent top speed, but that speaks more to endurance than sprint speed…no one who has seen Kerber play, or even seen a snapshot of her legs, will be surprised that she endures like no other.)

It’s true that our eyes fool us, of course. But they usually fool us because we have something invested in what they can and cannot see. What Mary Jo Fernandez–and the legion of tennis announcers and fans who would have immediately agreed with her if they had been asked–has invested is simple enough.

She’s invested in the complex set of mythologies that don’t allow some white people–mostly Good Liberals like herself–to see black people in purely human terms.

Too bad. Because the reason Serena Williams is in the argument for the greatest women’s tennis player ever owes relatively little to her “athleticism.” Of course she’s a great athlete. No one gets themselves into the position of being called the greatest ever in a supremely athletic sport without being a great athlete.

But the sport is filled with great athletes. Simona Halep, a really fun player who has yet to win a major, being one.

The sport is tennis, so it’s always filled with great athletes.

You don’t become–or remain–Serena Williams, though, by being the “best” athlete, which she’s probably never been and certainly hasn’t been for more than a decade.

What you really need is a whole lot of qualities that can’t be measured by a stop watch.

Curt Gowdy once spoke of a conversation he had with a baseball scout, who told him that scouting would never be an exact science, because there would never be a way to measure the two things that mattered most: the head and the heart.

However much Serena is lauded for her toughness (often) or her tactics (occasionally) or savvy (almost never), such plaudits still fall under the shadow of the plaudit that is applied most frequently of all: She’s the best athlete!

Meaning, you know…. (whisper)...she’s black.

I don’t mean it’s only that. Other black tennis players have come and gone–and pretty much the first and last word on every one of them is that they were/are “great athletes.” But Serena is different because she has won to a level that means she has to be somehow explained.

And she has been.

That’s why, when Good Liberal white tennis announcers (the overwhelming majority–at least for the sake of public consumption), talk about the Serena Williams who has won twenty-two major titles, they speak of her as Super Woman. They speak of her as such, even when the evidence of their own eyes would plainly tell them otherwise if they only let it.

You know: She wins because she’s more than human.

And it’s why, when those same announcers talk about the Serena Williams who has failed to win the forty-three other major tournaments she’s entered (about the same percentage of failure experienced by other all-time all-timers), they speak of her almost exclusively as they might of a great Spoiled Child who has let them down by failing to live up to her inhuman potential.

You know: She loses because she’s less than human.

Or at very least, less than grown up.

They have eyes and they cannot see. Even a tennis match.

Thus they are eternally surprised.

Lest we forget: The same minds cover politics.

It’s the same minds, even if they don’t belong to the same people.

And they went a long way towards getting us into this mess, with their failure to see.

SEGUE OF THE DAY (7/4/13–ESPN covers tennis. First the women. Then the men. Sports Moment #9)

Chris Fowler Once/Chris Fowler Twice…

Wow. Didn’t realize it had been so long since two elements informed and enlightened each other on the same day in just the right way! And, since it happened during Wimbledon, it pretty much had to be related to tennis.

Anyhow:

I usually think I’m jaded enough to not be surprised by much, especially when it comes to sports “journalism” and most especially when it comes to commentary on tennis, the one major sport where men and women compete for public attention on a more or less equal basis and, therefore, the one major sport where even the sport’s nominal sponsors (who might have something to gain by promoting it unabashedly), are dedicated to the relentless protection of male privilege.

How relentless?

Heck, they’ll stick with it even if it costs money–which, in this case, it does and which they know it does.

I know how this works. We all know how this works–right down to the routine denials by all parties involved of there ever having been even a thought of doing any such thing!

And–sad but true–I’m no longer young.

So I’m used to letting it roll off my back. Life’s too short.

If, say, Tony Kornhiser, co-host of a show called Pardon the Interruption (and life-long card carrying member of the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade, Sports Division), spends a week mocking his partner Michael Wilbon’s tickets to the Ladies’ Semifinal at Wimbledon as being “worthless” because Serena Williams was knocked out of the draw on Monday, I hardly bat an eye. That Wilbon, if indeed he decided to use those tickets, would end up seeing the match of the tournament to that point (contested–on a knife edge throughout–between Sabine Lisicki, the enormously gifted young woman who beat Serena by outplaying her at her own game and very well might be a breakout star, and Agnieska Radwanska, the tennis player’s tennis player) was as predictable as sticking your hand in a bucket of water and having it come out wet.

As I say, I’m used to all that.

But there was a kind of twist on the theme during the 4th of July Wimbledon coverage.

The Lisicki/Radwandska match was covered by Chris Fowler doing play-by-play. (Chris Evert provided color commentary but really isn’t germane to this.)

I noticed throughout that Fowler–high-level DBCCB material himself–was remarkably subdued, almost as if he had started working for the BBC or something. (With them, understatement is a style. It’s a style no one has ever heard of at ESPN.)

Not only was the match filled with the highest tension imaginable (three-set matches generate such from the get-go, whereas even the closest high-stakes five-setters contested by the men usually don’t start raising anxiety levels unless and until there’s a fourth set between the small handful of actual contenders), it featured a bundle of the very sort of indelible, athletic shot-making under pressure that normally tends to make Fowler’s voice rise two octaves.

For Thursday’s match, he sounded like he was in church, wondering if he should nudge the deacon sleeping next to him in the pew, or just let him go ahead and sleep through the sermon.

“Gee, what happened to Fowler?” I wondered as the match came to an end (Lisicki winning 9-7 in the final set–that’s several extra innings of a World Series game, with everything on the line and no teammates to help you, for those of you who don’t follow tennis.)

I mean, I thought maybe MI6 had got to him. Possibly even turned him against us? Maybe promised him British citizenship if he proved he could keep his heart rate level throughout?

Something?

I started thinking, yeah that must be it.

We’re finally gonna get rid of Chris Fowler! This time next year, he’ll be doing soccer matches for Man U! Tennis and College Football will be free at last!

Then, just as I was breaking out the wine and cheese and preparing to celebrate, ESPN started running a partial replay of the men’s match from the day before between Brit Andy Murray (one of the men’s “Big Four” who have been dividing up the tennis slams between them for about three hundred Klingon years**) and persistent underachiever Fernando Verdasco.

And there was my man Fowler, in all his glory, calling Murray’s comeback from two sets down–an event that was surprising in the way that Russian Roulette ending badly when it is played without an empty chamber is surprising–and the comforting signs of hero-worship, heart-throbbery and man-crushery and all those other, more or less unmentionable, things that keep America strong were fully present and accounted for. The hyperbole! The two-octave rise! The persistent encomiums to how magnificent and “amazing” it all was!

So I had to put the wine and cheese back in the cupboard and accept that, alas, he is still one of us and that his palpable lack of enthusiasm for the genuinely exciting match that happened to be played by women a day later was just the same tired old double-your-standard-double-your-fun narrative being served up in a new bottle.

Almost got me there Chris. Well done!

And please do hold your breath waiting for it to happen again…

NOTE: Below is the best highlight package I could find on the net from the Lisicki/Radwanska match. Not ideal, perhaps (it leaves out many of the best points) but gives at least some feel for the match. The announcer who appears in audio snippets throughout seems to know a bit about building drama and calling a tennis match. In any case he has a great voice. There’s an ESPN logo in the corner, but, rest assured, this is not Chris Fowler.

Sabine Lisicki, Aga Radwanska (Wimbledon Semi-final Highlights, 2013)

And since, in one of those unlucky coincidences, those highlights begin directly after the point of the match, well, here’s the point of the match:

Sabine Lisicki, Aga Radwanska (Point of the Match, 2013 Wimbledon Semi-Final)

(**If there is no such thing as “Klingon years” please refrain from enlightening me. My present state of uncertainty is all the bliss I either deserve or require.)