Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis.
JR: So, Jonathan, one would think that with the US Open over, the tennis news cycle would slow down a bit. But with Miss Olympia’s newly verified Instagram account, Maria’s book, and Laver Cup, it’s hard to keep up.
JN: Alexis Olympia Ebony Starr Ohanian-Williams is her name as far as I’m concerned. I knew we were going to be writing about Sharapova today (again), but you caught me a bit off guard when you said you wanted to chat about the Laver Cup. We haven’t talked about that one bit privately, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it. Shall we start this Diary there?
JR: Sure. I can’t decide if Laver Cup is a cynical cash grab, an exhibition in posh clothing, or a fun experiment with format. It might be all three. I’m always skeptical of additions to the calendar -- especially ones with huge appearance fees -- when scheduling is such a contentious issue in tennis, and when the US Open men’s draw was plagued by big-name withdrawals.
JN: I take and understand all those points, but I actually think it’s one of the better additions we’ve seen to the tennis calendar. I imagine the intent of it is in line with the Ryder Cup -- and more specifically the Presidents Cup -- events in golf, two tournaments that add a lot of texture and fun to the golf calendar without relying on gimmicks to bring fans in (*cough cough - Next Gen Finals*). We get to see Nadal and Federer play on the same team, which is a win-win for the sport.
JR: I hear you … the Ryder Cup is hugely successful in golf (and it's been played in my hometown of Rochester, NY!). Laver Cup is in a good spot in the calendar, when many top players would be resting and while other players are competing in 250s. I hear Fedal will be playing doubles together, as well, which obviously has appeal. The lack of stakes, though, is a hindrance to me: it’s a bunch of very rich men playing low-risk low-reward tennis, for what exactly? I will concede that the entertainment value could be huge. The barrier right now is the hilariously lopsided match-up of “Team Europe” versus “Team World,” the latter of which pulls from only the U.S., Canada, and Australia; and whose players have shockingly poor head-to-heads against Team Europe.
JN: Well, del Potro was supposed to play (which would have made it four) but he hasn’t yet recovered from his U.S. Open semifinal run. For a tournament like this to take off, it needs to have the legends of the game fully invested and the big names playing; the Laver Cup meets this criteria and then some: Team Europe will be headed by Bjorn Borg and Team World captained by John McEnroe. Then, we have the man himself Rod Laver doing all the promo he can manage to sell the event, and we have Fedal making time for it as well. In Borg-McEnroe and Federer-Nadal, these are two all-time great rivalries that will bring visibility and prestige to the event. Only time will tell if it will last.
JR: I like that they have foregrounded tennis history with the choice of captains and centering Rod Laver. It’s also being held in Czech Republic, one of the most storied nations in tennis and one that doesn't have a big tournament of its own. Shall we move on to Maria?
JN: Yes. But, one last point about Laver Cup. With the Ryder and Presidents Cups, the strength of the competing teams goes in cycles based on how well folks are playing in the two years leading up to the event. The big difference is that, while there is a qualification points system in golf, it feels a bit arbitrary with the Laver Cup. How were these players selected? Were they chosen because others weren’t willing to make themselves available? This is something to look for in future years; will it become a firm & desirable event in the calendar?
Every time we say we’re done talking about Maria, something else happens to make liars out of us, lol. Maria has been making the press rounds to promote her new book, and one of the more surprising spots she did was on Sway’s Universe, sitting down with black presenters and a presumably black audience, fielding questions about race and Serena. Where do you want to start?
JR: She is a skilled media personality, that’s for damn sure. I was struck by how down-to-earth she seemed; I expected her to be more uncomfortable in that setting. Of course, she wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable. As podcasters ourselves, I understand that slamming her with hardball questions probably wouldn’t make for good audio. It was a mix of fawning and a few pretty good questions, and she skillfully dodged them all. The best question -- about whether race has played a role in her and Serena’s earning potential -- was the one where her Swift-ianism shone through most clearly. She can’t imagine a world in which her whiteness and blondness has enabled her to succeed where black women must struggle mightily to gain half.
JN: The problem with race for white people is that they often struggle to speak definitively about it because it’s not something they can quantify. In this instance, this is one of the more clear examples of a situation where you can almost definitely make that correlation, and pinpoint race and beauty standards as contributing factors. Why else should someone of Serena’s stature -- so much more successful on court -- make so much less than Maria in endorsements? Maria deflected with a bizarre “can we trust those numbers?” and “I hope that’s not the case” combo. It was a missed opportunity to garner some serious good will from her detractors.
JR: I often hear about “likeability” vis-a-vis Serena, to explain why she is so undervalued and underpaid in comparison with Maria. Serena has long been a complex and difficult persona, and her Black Lives Matter activism is not helping her marketability with Rolex or Mercedes-Benz. However, the argument that Maria is more “likeable” than Serena is thin, and frankly, not worth discussing unless it accounts for the presumed virtuousness of white women. What really angers me about this is Maria’s invocation of she and Serena being “friends” after retirement, while at the same time smearing her all over her memoir. What’s worse is that interviewers are now asking this insipid question because Maria’s book laid the groundwork.
JN: What’s just as upsetting as white people being unwilling to grapple with the role racism plays in things, is the corollary unwillingness to grapple with the role that their white privilege plays in their lives. Not only has race been an oppressive force in Serena’s career on and off the court, but it’s been a necessarily beneficial one for Maria: the same reasons why Serena won’t make as much or get certain opportunities off the court, are the same reasons why Maria will. White privilege thrives when we deny the existence of racism and its insidious nature. As for the whole “friends” business, HOLY COW! All Serena is doing is trying to give birth, be a mom for the first time, and get back on the tennis court at 36-years-old . . . small potatoes. Yet, she has to be hearing her name in all this unnecessary drama because Maria wants to sell some books and rehab her image. If I’m Serena, how could I be friends with someone who tells the whole world that I was dry-heave-bawling in the Wimbledon locker room -- a betrayal of privacy -- and then propagates that as the reason why she hasn’t beaten Serena since the end of 2004? Well, if Serena were that turnt up about Maria hearing her back then, what do you think she’s going to unleash on Maria now that she’s told the whole damn world?
JR: We got to see it, in fact. Serena wrote a beautiful open letter to her mother on Reddit, which also happened to feature some blatant jabs at Maria. She writes, “It has been said that I use drugs. (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage.” I mean, it’s clear to whom she’s speaking. I think that new mom Serena will likely leave it at that; she’s busy, she’s feeling blessed, and why not retain the moral high ground? Who among us can have 23 major titles and the moral high ground? I’d keep it.
What strikes me is that even in motherhood, or perhaps especially in motherhood, Serena feels compelled to defend her physique against those who mock and discredit her for it. She wants to raise a daughter who is proud when she looks in the mirror. It’s something that female athletes must endure at every stage, but especially black women, whose bodies have been ridiculed, eroticized, feared, and fetishized for centuries in the New World. For me, this is something that Maria’s privilege allows her to ignore, and indeed profit from.
JN: Of course. Maria says that her intent was never to racialize Serena’s body when she described her as having thick arms and legs etc. in her book. But that is the entire point of her privilege: it’s not about her intent, it’s about how she isn’t remotely aware of the context in which her words land; they are problematic, seriously hurtful and racist. So what if Maria didn’t mean it that way? This is not new territory we’re covering here. White people need to do better and educate themselves, rather than claim ignorance. It seemed pretty clear to me too that Serena was shading Maria with precision in that letter.
JR: Why don't we end on something positive? How about that Miss Alexis Olympia! What a beautiful angel. After all my complaining, I'm so happy for the new parents, grandparents, and Aunties Vee, Isha and Lyn. Hopefully, Mama will be back on court soon. Australia still seems ambitious, but I'm looking forward to seeing more training snaps and photos.
JN: Amen to ALL of that.