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Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic can’t win for trying

You would think that for two people who had reached the pinnacle of their profession, the world would be their oyster.

  Serena Williams with the women’s Wimbledon trophy, 2012.

Serena Williams with the women’s Wimbledon trophy, 2012.

But no, no, things didn’t work out that way for Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic though it’s certainly not for lack of effort on their part.

Holder of the Serena Slam (all four Slam titles at once), Serena will no doubt win the US Open that begins on Aug. 29 and succeed Steffi Graf by capturing the Grand Slam (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open) in one calendar year. She will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, to play the game. Simply put, there is Serena and there is everyone else.

Nole is not even comparably in her league. But he has had the greater competition and the more unenviable task. The first paragraph of his obituary will always be that he became No. 1 by defeating two of the greatest players ever – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – often back-to-back. It is perhaps not his destiny to be the best ever but to be the one to beat the best ever and to do it after having overcome a far greater opponent – war.

And yet, as comedian Rodney Dangerfield would say, they can’t get no respect. Their dance at the Wimbledon Champions’ Ball – a former tradition whose revival was instigated by Nole – is emblematic of their treatment. It was a goofball dance to The Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever,” the kind that the A students who aren’t necessarily known for letting down their hair attempt at the prom. You can see it here. It engendered many good-natured comments along with remarks that can only be described as racist and misogynistic.

As Serena’s run at the Grand Slam deepens, she has once again been met with questions about her femininity, which cut deeply into the soul of any woman. Just as men don’t like to be called “girls” or “sissies,” women don’t like to be considered mannish. Women like being women. Just ask Caitlyn Jenner.

  Novak Djokovic capturing the No. 1 ranking en route to his first Wimbledon title, 2011.

Novak Djokovic capturing the No. 1 ranking en route to his first Wimbledon title, 2011.

But apparently, incredibly, in the 21st century, you can’t be strong mentally and physically and be a woman. When a man tweeted, “Ironic then that main reason for her success is that she is built like a man,” J.K. Rowling tweeted a picture of Serena in a form-fitting red dress with the words, “Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

Then came the articles that are meant to be supportive or at least objective but only had the opposite effect. We’re told “Serena Looked Like A Disney Princess At The Wimbledon Champion’s Ball.”  Not that she looked beautiful or elegant or glamorous. No, she looked like a Disney princess, because that’s what every grown woman of accomplishment aspires to be. Note the absence of headlines about Novak Djokovic looking just like a Disney prince. But then what women wear matters, because they are the primary symbols of beauty and sex in our world, which is why I take every opportunity I can to write and blog about men as sex objects – and which is why I plan to do a post about Stan “the Man” Wawrinka posing nude for ESPN’s latest Body Issue.

But back to the Disney princesses: The New York Times and its tennis writer Ben Rothenberg did themselves no favors with a piece about the uneasy relationship between women’s bodies and their athleticism. 

Here’s a sample from the story:

“Williams…has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”

No doubt, Rothenberg was trying to write a sympathetic piece about the effect gender roles and genetics have had on the female tennis player. But some critics said that the very idea of writing such a story makes it neither balanced nor feminist.

Serena’s troubles and lack of respect are bound up in racial and gender stereotypes. The prejudice against Nole is subtler although there is an ethnic element to it. (There are people who don’t like him, because of Serbia’s role in the Balkan Wars.) But the prejudice boils down to the same thing:  As with Serena, he’s not some people’s idea of a classic tennis champion.

When people look at Serena, some wish to see instead Chrissie Evert – the slender, pony-tailed 16-year-old whose day went the way of the larger graphite racket and power game. When people look at Nole, some people wish to see the Roger Federer of his prime, complete with his monogrammed jacket, elegant backhand and hauteur. To these fans, Chrissie and Fed represent a past that is not only gone, it may have never existed.

Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – No. 1 players, Wimbledon champs, fierce, fiery competitors – are themselves. That’s all any of us can and should be.

It’s not only good enough. It’s better than excellent.