As we edge closer to December 21st and the world hurtles closer to its Mayan-predicted end, more and more signs of the apocalypse appear to be popping up.
For one, the American media largely ignores tennis, save for the weeks during the US Open. Yet, at the height of the off-season, the sport found itself as a topic of conversation on the popular talk show, The View. The ladies were discussing last weekend’s exhibition in Brazil that featured, among others, Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams. Free from the usual tournament tension, players use exhibitions as their opportunity to entertain the crowd without fearing a win or a loss.
The panel, Sherri Shepherd and Whoopi Goldberg in particular, took issue with one of those attempts at entertainment. As the event unfolded, Wozniacki (referred to as “Carol” by Ms. Goldberg) impersonated Williams, and stuffed her front and back to simulate the American’s famous assets. The question, to the shock of tennis fans, was whether the move by Wozniacki was racist.
When panelist Joy Behar quipped that white women are made fun of for their bodies, Ms. Shepherd retorted, “I’m speaking as a black woman…to see Serena Williams reduced to this, I don’t like it.” Ms. Goldberg, typically looked to as the panel’s voice of reason, went further and likened the image of the Dane’s stuffed bra and underwear as one “generally seen with a bone in their nose and a short little skirt.” She went on to say, “I don’t ever remember them making fun of the white tennis players.”
The reaction on Twitter was swift:
But I must point to another sign of our impending doom: Today, the outspokenly conservative panelist, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, talked some sense. She brought up the very important point that players impersonate each other all the time, citing Novak Djokovic as a player quick to comically don the mask of one of his peers. Ms. Hasselbeck’s argument was not perfect if only that she claimed that the players of the ATP impersonate each other. Quite the opposite; in fact, some of the most remembered on-court clowns, Djokovic along with Andy Roddick and Dmitry Tursunov, get their biggest laughs from impersonating the ladies. Which famous, multiple-Slam winning player do they impersonate the most?
Djokovic won over an Arthur Ashe Stadium night crowd in 2007 with his ability to encapsulate the Russian’s deliberate pre-serve routine, down to the tucking of hair behind the ear.
One may argue that Djokovic didn’t physically alter himself in the way that Wozniacki did. However, 10 months earlier, it was Sharapova’s compatriot Tursunov who stuffed two strategically placed tennis balls down his shirt while impersonating her.
When the reader takes this into consideration, it becomes clear that impersonations in tennis are anything but a black/white issue. Williams and Sharapova are the sport’s two most recognizable stars; when a player impersonates them, an exhibition crowd can easily point them out.
Caroline Wozniacki is not a racist for knowing how to entertain a crowd. She did not step on the court in blackface, and to deem large breasts and buttocks as a signifier of black women alone does not do justice to the women of all colors who are either full figured or aspire to be shaped like Serena Williams.
An impersonation can be racist, but not all people who impersonate people of other races are racists. If that were true, then where was The View when Caucasian Fred Armisen repeatedly impersonated President Barack Obama or former New York Governor David Patterson on Saturday Night Live?
But this is more than simply an issue about who has the right to impersonate whom; what matters is the message that The View’s discussion sends to non-tennis fans. Often looked on as an elitist, country club sport, professional tennis is truly the opposite, with the rankings alone a testament to the melting pot that is the tennis world. Players like Williams, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer have done immeasurable outreach with underprivileged youth in the United States and Africa, opening schools and driving home the global nature of the sport that made them famous.
Baseless accusations like this senselessly sully the sport’s reputation, and most ironically, give people who know nothing about tennis the wrong “impression.”