The Media Today

Serena Williams once wrote tennis news. She never stopped.

September 6, 2022
Serena Williams, of the United States, acknowledges the crowd after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic, of Austrailia, during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Nearly a quarter century ago, an upstart newsletter launched to cover the world of professional tennis, offering interviews, analysis, gossip, wire copy, and the occasional embarrassing error. The newsletter, titled Tennis Monthly Recap, circulated in print at the 1999 Australian Open, then at an event in the US; its two publishers would print somewhere between fifty and a hundred copies, and leave them in tournament hotels where players could pick one up. Years later, one of the publishers put it to the tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg, who was profiling Tennis Monthly Recap for Slate, that the newsletter’s eventual decline may have been a harbinger of the broader decline of print media. “We were a small company; unfortunately we went out of business,” the publisher said. “We were first to go out of business. Always the first!”

The publisher who spoke with Rothenberg was Serena Williams. The other publisher was her sister Venus; both were teenagers when Tennis Monthly Recap launched. (Venus recalled its demise differently, telling Rothenberg, “I think we hated writing.”) Rothenberg showed an old edition of the newsletter to both sisters and to Tommy Haas, a German tennis player whom Serena interviewed for it. (“I had extra batteries for the tape recorder and I was equipped with my pen and note pad, just like a journalist,” she wrote at the time, before going on to note that Haas could “use a little more patience and variety in his game.”) Haas’s recollection of the interview—fun, but also professional and serious—meshed with the broader “reputation for independence,” as Rothenberg put it, that the Williamses gained after arriving on the tennis scene. Haas, who attended the same training academy as Serena, recalled that the newsletter’s reception on the scene was similar: one of “initial trepidation, but ultimately garnering respect.”

Related: Naomi Osaka and the meaning of press freedom

That assessment might be stretched to cover the tennis world’s—and much of the media’s—attitudes toward the entire arc of the Williams sisters’ subsequent all-conquering careers. But it would be an understatement. “The Williams sisters—and, specifically, their dad—were seen as a blight on tennis when they arrived in the late ’90s, too brash, too unrefined and, mostly, too Black,” New York’s Will Leitch wrote on Saturday. “A whole bunch of the same people who were celebrating Serena last night desperately wanted her and her sister to go away when they first arrived.”

By celebrating Serena last night, Leitch was referring to the widespread adulation—including, again, in swaths of the press—that followed what looks to have been the final match of her career, a defeat by Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the US Open. Last month, Williams outlined her intention to move on from tennis in a first-person cover story for Vogue that was widely interpreted as the announcement of her retirement, even though Williams wrote that she dislikes that word. (She prefers “evolution,” she said.) Williams giving Vogue the scoop “might have seemed strange to people who don’t think of the magazine as a conventional news outlet—much less a sports magazine,” the New York Times noted, but it actually made sense: Williams has appeared on its cover at least four times before, and Anna Wintour, Vogue’s top editor, is a big Williams fan. (She was a guest in Williams’s box for the first round of the US Open last week.)

It’s tempting to state that such glamour is a far cry from the days of the self-published Tennis Monthly Recap—but Williams was in the pages of Vogue before her newsletter even went into distribution, featuring in a 1998 spread with Venus that was photographed by Annie Leibovitz. (“I don’t think those pictures turned out very well at all,” Serena said afterward. “They could have done it a little better. The lighting, everything.”) By then, the Williams sisters were already starting to attract significant media attention—and also, as Leitch noted, no little animosity. Richard Williams—their father, who was outspoken about his daughters’ plans for world domination and was portrayed by Will Smith in the recent movie King Richard—was often depicted, in those days, as aggressive, arrogant, even suspect. “As Black people, we couldn’t possibly be that smart to have the plan that Mr. Williams had in place,” Katrina Adams, a former pro who became the first Black woman to lead the US Tennis Association, told Vox last year. “Our girls couldn’t possibly be that disciplined. That’s what the media assumed.”

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At a press conference at the US Open in 1998, a journalist challenged Serena Williams on the definition of the word “ghetto,” asserting that it originated in Eastern Europe, not the African American community, then pulling out a dictionary to prove his point. (“You have your information,” Williams replied. “I have mine.”) As the years passed, racist and sexist tropes would recur in coverage of Williams, often manifesting as double standards or in comments about her muscular physique and the way she dressed, with the latter channeling, as the academic Nicole Fleetwood has written, the trope of “the Black female body as excess.” In 2001, a reporter on Don Imus’s radio show said that the Williams sisters were more likely to pose in National Geographic than Playboy. In 2006, Canada’s National Post wrote that people in a hotel room below that of Serena Williams surely “spent the evening dodging falling plaster.” In 2018, after Williams clashed with the umpire during her US Open final loss against Naomi Osaka, Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper ran a cartoon of Williams having a tantrum that America’s National Association of Black Journalists decried as “exuding racist, sexist caricatures of both women.” Last year, a sports-radio host in Buffalo was fired after he compared Williams’s skin tone to toast. This year, the Times illustrated an article about Serena Williams with a photo of Venus.

The world of tennis, specifically, has historically been elite and white-dominated, a disparity long reflected in the press corps that covers it. The Williams sisters challenged that status quo. They also challenged the broader convention—as Erin Whiteside, a scholar at the University of Tennessee, wrote for The Conversation last week—that sports journalism in the US should be apolitical, and set apart from bigger social questions. Serena Williams’s “presence as a Black woman in a historically white, patriarchal sport, her commitment to activism and her willingness to bare her personal challenges to the public” forced a reckoning with those norms, Whiteside wrote. If “scholarship on sports journalism suggests the boundaries of the genre are rapidly changing” now, “the field is shedding its stick-to-sports ethos, in part, due to activist-minded athletes like Serena Williams.” As one sports reporter at the Times recently put it, “writing about Serena is writing about America. It’s writing about stardom, fashion, economics, culture, in all kinds of great and upsetting and complicated ways.”

Williams’s run-ins with reporters, especially early on in her career, must all be seen in this context, though some have been easier to defend than others. During a recent podcast discussion about what it was like to cover Williams, Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated, told Richard Deitsch that Williams can be both “charming and insightful” and exhibit “real frost and opacity.” During the same discussion, however, Scott Price, who also covered Williams, noted that she maintained unusually open relationships even with reporters, Price included, who criticized her; at one point, Williams’s team pitched Price on a detailed profile, not the other way around. “Clearly, they saw the value of wanting to tell their story,” Price said. In a 2020 CJR piece about the trend of celebrities imposing increasingly onerous editorial conditions in exchange for giving access to documentary-makers, Danny Funt cited Williams as an exception. “Serena is obviously a mega-brand, but she’s not controlling of her image,” Ryan White, who followed Williams for a film in 2015, when she won three majors but lost the US Open, said. “She doesn’t give a shit what people think about her, and that makes for a perfect documentary subject.” (“That was really heavy,” Williams told White, after watching the film. “I have one note: you got the score wrong for my third-round match in the French Open.”)

Williams clearly now has one eye on her legacy, even if, as she wrote in her recent Vogue essay, she doesn’t like to think about it too much. “I’m far from perfect, but I’ve also taken a lot of criticism, and I’d like to think that I went through some hard times as a professional tennis player so that the next generation could have it easier,” she wrote. “Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolizing something bigger than tennis… I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”

She is, at the very least, continuing to shape her own narrative and that of her sport, as she has since the days of Tennis Monthly Recap: she wrote for Vogue that one reason she’s moving on from tennis—to grow her family—wouldn’t be forced upon her if she were a man; in her post-match interview on Friday, Williams left the door open—if only a little bit—for a professional return. In addition to growing her family, she hopes, now, to help shape the business world, too, via an investment firm that she started a few years ago after learning how much venture-capital funding goes to men. “Someone who looks like me needs to start writing the big checks,” she wrote in Vogue. “Sometimes like attracts like.” She’s returning to the world of publishing, too. Her first children’s book will come out later this month. Always the first.

Below, more on Serena Williams and tennis:

  • Beyond the court: In 2018, after both Williams and Beyoncé shared stories about experiencing pregnancy-related health complications, Cynthia Greenlee wrote for CJR about the media conversation that ensued and the dearth of Black expert voices within it, even though Black women are much likelier than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. “The factors that underpin this lack of black expertise in stories are complex,” Greenlee wrote. “Some, such as competing definitions of ‘expertise’ and barriers that constrain numbers of black advanced-degree holders, are specific to an expert’s field. Others—deadline pressures, the challenges of reporting on technical material, unconscious bias—implicate news outlets.”
  • Beyond the Court: Much of the media commentary around Williams’s retirement has been complimentary, but not all of it has. Margaret Court, whose all-time record of twenty-four Grand Slam wins Williams narrowly failed to match (she won twenty-three), criticized Williams in a rare interview with the right-wing British newspaper The Telegraph, suggesting that the media has erased her past achievements—in part because of her more recent opposition to same-sex marriage—and claiming that tennis is “easier” today. (Wertheim noted recently for Sports Illustrated that comparing Williams’s and Court’s records is “the ultimate apples-to-oranges,” not least because “eleven of Court’s titles came at the Australian Open when it was a major in name only.”)
  • “You cannot be serious!” Over the long weekend, Matthew Futterman, of the Times, profiled the former tennis pro John McEnroe, who has “become a subject of fascination and a ubiquitous presence, inside tennis and outside it, too,” even as other former tennis stars have seen their fame fade. McEnroe is “the leading voice of the [US Open] on ESPN, the subject of a new documentary, even the narrator and superego of a lovesick and unathletic teenage Indian American girl with a hot temper on Mindy Kaling’s comedy Never Have I Ever,” Futterman writes. “The staying power is sweet revenge for the man whom much of tennis officialdom once viewed as toxic to their genteel game.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.