This story has been updated
For most of her life, Brittney Cooper has watched tennis, bearing witness to the sport’s brightest stars, from Monica Seles and John McEnroe to Venus Williams and Coco Gauff.
So when Serena Williams faced off against Naomi Osaka on Wednesday night at the Australian Open, there was no doubt what Cooper would be doing: watching Williams, an all-time great, play against one of the sport’s brightest young stars, Osaka.
It was the next chapter in an exciting rivalry, one that was cemented by a controversial 2018 U.S. Open championship, which Osaka won.
But she watched with the sound off. She didn’t want to listen to the commentary.
Evert, an ESPN analyst and former world No. 1 tennis player, has covered many of the sport’s top tournaments and personalities. But she has been criticized by tennis fans for the way she has covered the Williams sisters in particular, leaning into subtle messaging about their emotions, physicality and perceived lack of grace, finesse or mental toughness. Evert has also been complimentary to Williams and come to her defense in the past, including noting she’s “arguably the best of all time.”
But on Wednesday night, during and after Evert’s commentary on the Osaka-Williams match, tennis fans jumped to social media to voice their complaints.
“Quite frankly, she takes away the pleasure of watching the match because there’s always these very sort of passive aggressive remarks,” Cooper said.
The difficulty in talking about Evert’s commentary, many say, is that there’s no single sound bite one can hold up as being irrefutably, undeniably racist or sexist. But Evert’s critics say there is a clear pattern of her talking about the Williams sisters, and Serena Williams specifically.
Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, describes it as a “thinly veiled” attempt to characterize Williams as a “troublemaker” within the sport.
“It’s so subtle for a lot of folks listening, but I think for those of us who are familiar with the ways that people can racially code animosity or animus, particularly toward Black women, [she] is a prime example of that,” said Lindsey, who, like Cooper, is a big fan of the sport.
This is most visible in Evert’s comments about Williams’s abrupt withdrawal from a 2014 doubles match, in which she and ESPN colleague Pam Shriver baselessly speculated whether the exit was drug-related.
Evert will also frequently refer to Williams’s emotions on the court, pointing out when she feels the 23-time Grand Slam winner is not properly controlling her anger.
Williams, like many elite athletes, often taps into her anger when she plays. This is something Williams herself has been blunt about, telling the Fader in 2016: “Sometimes, I almost need to get angry to win, which is really, really weird, but it works for me.”
This puts her in the company of many other champions, including Michael Jordan, who would often amp up petty slights from his competitors to channel into his play.
Cooper and Lindsey point out that, over time, these comments help form a narrative about Williams: that she lacks decorum, grace or finesse; that she makes “excuses” for her performance; that she lacks the mental wherewithal or focus to overcome challenges.
“It’s another way of framing this long-standing stereotype of the angry Black woman,” Lindsey said. “Specifically, Black women are framed as irrationally angry and therefore aggressive, and therefore bringing unnecessary drama to their workplace, too.”
Fans of Williams are still waiting for commentators to deliver the context, nuance and perspective that she — and other Black female tennis players — deserve, they say. This includes avoiding setting up Osaka as the “anti-Serena” because she’s perceived to be “softer” or “sweeter,” Lindsey said. This also means being consistent and clear about both Williams’s play and her contributions to the game.
“There’s a very conditional relationship to the way that you see her engaged by commentators,” said Lindsey, noting how Evert will compliment Williams for how well she is playing for her age one moment, then suggest she get “leaner” the next. “It feels like a no-win for her in terms of how her performance is assessed.”
But that treatment has also been so routine that Lindsey was curious about what sparked Wednesday night’s outcry, particularly among non-Black tennis fans.