::climbs up on soapbox::

I don’t often post links to other sportswriter’s pieces because I’ve always felt that it’s a big internet, you know what you like, and you can find it on your own. But every now and then something grabs my attention and I feel like I can’t just let it go by. Granted, I realize that by posting something that – at least in this instance – I fundamentally disagree with is just drawing more attention to the piece in question, but I’m also hopeful that it could open the lines of discourse on the subject.

So Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports has gone and written about Serena Williams. And lo, it is not pretty.

Whitlock begins by calling Serena Williams, excuse me, most recently crowned Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, an underachiever. Which is news, I’m sure, to those of us who will never win a single majors tennis title, let alone eleven, as Williams has. But, okay, I can almost see that point. If the argument is that if she worked harder, she could be even greater, I could see what Whitlock was getting at. While I don’t necessarily agree because, point 1) unless he trains with her daily, he has no idea how hard she’s actually working and, point 2) unlike most athletes out there, Serena has to contend constantly with the very real and ever-present challenge of her own sister – a champion in her own right. That, I’m sure, is pressure.

But here’s where Whitlock goes off the rails: “She’d rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments and complain she’s not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands.”

Oh, oh HELL no. We’re back here again, are we? We’re back at this debate. Despite her 11 major tennis singles titles, 22 major titles in total and two Olympic gold medals, accomplishments which should really speak for themselves to that whole “underacheiver” claim Whitlock makes, Williams is being derided for not being thin enough? Really?

Everyone remembers Anna Kournikova, right? Pretty girl, played tennis reasonably well, dated Enrique Iglesias for a while? Then the tables turned and she started getting slammed for becoming more interested in her modeling career than her middling tennis one. Serena Williams could eat her for breakfast. I find it interesting that while Whitlock is claiming that Williams could be even better at tennis if she’d just eat a little less and care a bit more about her appearance (the athletic equivalent of “she has a great personality”), he doesn’t once mention how so many sportswriters (and possibly even himself), railed against Kournikova for being a model first and a tennis player, oh, fifth, maybe. And yet he seems to be advocating that line of “training” for Williams.

I won’t argue that he’s being sexist for claiming that people like their athletes to look good. That goes without saying, though Whitlock does make the Tom Brady argument for me. I have and will continue to objectify professional athletes from time to time. It’s all part of being in the public eye. But to claim that if Serena Williams lost thirty pounds, she’d set every record known to man is pure nonsense. There’s a reason she’s so powerful. A lot of it comes from that “oversized back pack” as Whitlock so charmingly calls it.

Look, I’m not a tiny girl myself and never will be. And I don’t work anywhere near as hard as Serena Williams at my athletic endeavors (presumably Whitlock would also call me an underacheiver for failing to win a singles title by the age of 28), but I can tell you two things I’ve learned from marathon training. One, the more you run and the more you push it, those of us genetically pre-disposed to carrying our weight in our backsides are not going to see them get any smaller. And two, if you’re training for anything, any athletic activity at all, you’ve gotta EAT. Possibly Whitlock never passed basic nutrition class, I don’t know. But unless he’s standing next to Williams and weighing her food portions himself, he’d do well to keep his “nutrional” opinions to himself.

Seems it was just a few months ago when all anyone would talk about was Michael Phelp’s seemingly inhuman intake of 12,000 calories a day. And all the guy did was win eight gold medals. Surely Whitlock would claim he could have won ten if he’d just cut back on the pancakes.

What about Dan Marino? Widely regarded as one of the best professional football quarterbacks ever but not a single Super Bowl title to show for it. Probably because he just couldn’t put down those french fries, eh, Jason?

The fact is that the Williams sisters provide their own litmus test, of sorts. You don’t get much closer, genetically, than sisters and the physical difference between Serena and Venus Williams is obvious. Venus is taller and more sveltly built while Serena is heavily muscled and four inches shorter. But only one of them has a killer power serve. Hint: it’s not Venus.

The tendency in a situation like this is to go on the attack and start picking on Whitlock’s less than Adonis-like body. (And some of the Jezebel commentors surely have that taken care of). But that does no one any good. I also suspect he thinks he’s beaten us to the punch by claiming that he’s “fulfilling his destiny” because “sportswriters are supposed to be plump and lazy.” But in actuality, he’s proven exactly how lazy he is by resorting to a tired old cliche masquerading as an intelligent sports article.

And that, I think, is the tragedy here. Serena Williams is going to be fine. If anything, she seems perfectly happy in her championship-style body and good for her. Whitlock also claims that she’s too interested in pursuing interests outside of tennis and that she’s “happy to be photographed on dates with pro athletes and proud to serve as a role model for women with oversized back packs.” Yes, how DARE she? As to her outside interests? Good for her. In addition to the things she no doubt does for fun, she’s also actively involved in charities, to say nothing of the way she’s helped raise the profile of tennis in the inner cities and among African-Americans, especially African-American women. She’s using her “celebrity” that Whitlock derides to many good ends. And if she decided to quit tennis tomorrow? That is her right. She owes us NOTHING.

What we – and by “we” I mean not only the sports-loving public but also journalists like Whitlock whom, without athletes like Williams would find themselves out of a job right quick – owe Serena Williams, is some respect. She’s certainly earned it.


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