On Saturday, July 11, tennis player Serena Williams won her 21st major competition. The American athlete defeated Spanish player Garbine Muguruza in the women’s singles final at Wimbledon, England. The win means Williams is just one step away from completing a women’s singles Grand Slam.
In tennis, the Grand Slam is composed of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Only three women have captured the Grand Slam by winning all four tournaments in a calendar year. The last was Germany’s Steffi Graf in 1988. And Williams will have her chance at the U.S. Open coming up in September.
Body image over body performance
Even with the possibility of William’s making tennis history, the main subject of women’s tennis in the last few days was not Williams’ victory. Instead, newspapers, broadcasters and social media have focused on Williams’ appearance, especially her muscles and the shape of her body.
On Friday, the day before her Wimbledon win, The New York Times published an article called “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition.” Ben Rothenberg wrote the article.
Mr. Rothenberg begins the article by writing that Serena Williams wears long sleeves to cover her “large biceps.” He goes on to write that many female tennis players do not seek large muscles even if it would improve their game. He writes that “body image issues” lead them to “avoid bulking up.”
The writer questioned several professional tennis players about developing a more muscular body to compete.
Andrea Petkovic of Germany was not in favor of it, saying “I just feel unfeminine.” Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland said she cares about how she looks, in her words, “because I’m a girl.” Radwanska’s coach said to the writer, “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
‘Absurd and insulting’
So, the implication is if a woman is muscular and powerful, she is not womanly. And, the report suggests that this thinking is common in the world of women’s tennis.
The New York Times report caused a widespread and angry debate on social and traditional media.
Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams protested the “body-slamming” of Serena Williams as “an absurd and insulting” habit that must end. She told critics of Williams’ body that they are free to judge the athlete by the size of her arms but she wrote “history will remember her by the length of the list of her victories.”
Even The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan took issue with Ben Rothenberg’s article. Her column raised the question whether the article was a “double fault.” Ms. Sullivan wrote the article was “a missed opportunity” and that it “didn’t find a way to challenge the views expressed, instead of simply mirroring them.”
On social media, author J.K. Rowling praised Serena Williams’ victory with “What a woman!” tweet. A Twitter user from Manchester, England, called it “ironic.” He tweeted that Serena was successful because “she is built like a man." Rowling answered with pictures of Serena in a dress and high heels. She tweeted, “Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You're an idiot."
History repeats itself
Criticism about the appearances of female athletes is not new. Tennis champion Martina Navratilova was the subject of insults and jokes throughout her career. She was called “manly” and was accused of having male body parts. She was also accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids.
Some people in the media have raised similar suspicions about Serena Williams. Just two days after Wimbledon, David Frum of The Atlantic suggested on Twitter that Williams might use steroids. And, in his tweets he included several references to Ben Rothenberg’s article in The New York Times.
I’m Ashley Thompson with Caty Weaver.
Caty Weaver reported this story from Washington. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
tournament – n. a sports competition or series of contests that involves many players or teams and that usually continues for at least several days
bulk up – phrasal v. to gain weight often by becoming more muscular
feminine – adj. of, relating to, or suited to women or girls
implication – n. something that is suggested without being said directly
double fault – n. in tennis, two bad serves that result in the loss of a point
ironic – adj. using words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny