Serena and Venus Williams are, arguably, the best thing to happen to the world of professional tennis. The sisters brought women’s tennis to the forefront of American sports in the early 1990s. Between the two of them, they have been ranked number one in the world for 197 weeks in their careers. And despite currently being two of the oldest players on tour, they continue to compete. At thirty-four years old, Venus is currently ranked nineteenth in the world, with seven career Grand Slam singles titles. One year younger, Serena is the number one player in the world, capturing seventeen Grand Slam singles titles since turning pro in 1995. Many say that the Williams sisters are the most athletic siblings the world has ever seen.
But recently, Venus and Serena have been victims of harsh criticism—not for their tennis performance, but for their perceived gender. Shamil Tarpischev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, referred to Venus and Serena as “the Williams brothers” and said that they are “‘scary’ to look at.” Because they are dominant in their sport and have an athletic build, they were accused of being genetically male, having undergone sex changes. Yes, Serena has the largest muscles on the women’s tour, but that does not mean that she is a man. As a result of his inappropriate comments, Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned from the Women’s Tennis Association for one year.
Many cases like this have arisen over the years. One of the more recent ones—other than that of Venus and Serena—is the story of Caster Semenya. In 2008, South African Caster became the focus of much speculation after a breakout run. Race after race, Caster continued to beat all of her opponents. As her career progressed, accusations arose that Caster was not a woman. According to her opponents, she did not look like a woman, and therefore, should not have been allowed to race against them. The International Association of Athletics Federations began to look into the accusations. As a teenager, Caster was forced to go through testing to determine her gender. She is now running significantly slower than when her career began.
Just like with Venus and Serena, Caster’s issues began because she did not look “right.” These three women are solid, with muscular builds similar to those of men. According to social ideals, men are supposed to be tall and muscular. But when women look this way, they are viewed as “too masculine.” This difference is shown in the rivalry of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
The two tennis players competed in the late twentieth century, leaving many to agree that they were tennis’s greatest rivalry. But because of their appearance, Evert and Navratilova were treated differently. Evert was small and pretty, so people were drawn to her, while Navratilova was built more masculine, creating a smaller fan base—not because of her tennis skills, but because of how she looked.
This stereotyping can go the other way, as well. Just after Tarpischev’s comments, the president of the PGA of America called professional golfer Ian Poulter a “little girl.” The comment was made in response to complaints in Poulter’s new autobiography. This is another derogatory gender-based remark saying that little girls are weak and complain a lot. Ted Bishop, the PGA president who made these remarks, was fired by the PGA of America.
Societal perceptions of athletes must change. There is no place for derogatory gender-based stereotyping in the twenty-first century. Women can have large muscles, and men can complain. There is no reason an athlete—male or female—should be judged by their appearance. It is all about playing the game.