Merlene Davis: Russian tennis official's comment about Venus and Serena Williams reflects poorly on him, not them

A former tennis official's comment about Serena, left, and Venus Williams reflects poorly on him, not them.
A former tennis official's comment about Serena, left, and Venus Williams reflects poorly on him, not them. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev appeared on a Russian late-night comedy TV show where the host was asking a woman tennis player about playing Venus and Serena Williams. It's a typical question asked because the Williams sisters have dominated women's tennis for many years.

But Tarpischev jumped in and referred to the sisters as "the Williams brothers."

Ha, ha, ha. Funny.

Full of himself, the 66-year-old man added, "It's frightening when you look at them. But really you just need to play against the ball."

The woman player who accompanied Tarpischev to the program did not laugh, fortunately. Neither did the Women's Tennis Association, which banned him from the tour for a year and fined him $25,000, the maximum fine allowed.

Realizing he was in trouble, Tarpischev issued a near apology, saying, "I regret that that joke, which when translated into English has been taken out of humorous context, was the focus of so much attention. I do not think that this story deserves such hype. After all, everything said on the air was said without malice."

It was a joke, y'all. What's all the fuss about?

Well, a couple of things.

We all know that if a boy athlete doesn't measure up to the abilities or skills of comparable males, he is said to play like a girl, which isn't meant as a compliment.

On the other hand, when girl athletes exceed the lowered level of athletic prowess set for females, they must have a higher level of male hormones. That is not a compliment, either.

Add developed muscles and fierce competitiveness to that skill set and you end up with someone who is scary.


There is nothing scary about Venus or Serena, other than their serves and those powerful returns they have mastered.

There is nothing scary about first lady Michelle Obama, either, whose chiseled arms elicit my jealousy. But she has been portrayed as a gun-toting terrorist and as an ape.

By using those descriptors, we are telling millions of young women who may not fit Madison Avenue's depiction of beauty that they are not really women.

Why does society worldwide seem to have a problem with how black women look?

And that is the second issue I have with Tarpischev's comments. He was saying that two highly skilled athletes are not women because they don't fit the picture of what he sees as women.

Fortunately, as more women advance behind the scenes of the media, we get to see that what's "normal" for women is being thrown out the window.

More and more black and Latino women are appearing in our homes via the TV screen and they are carrying their own weight just as white women have for years. Older women are sexy and fat women are not relegated to comedic roles.

Shonda Rhimes, producer of ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, has been putting black women in lead roles for several years. Those women reflect the women who can be found in black communities throughout this country.

We black women don't all look like either Kerry Washington of Scandal, or Chandra Wilson of Grey's Anatomy, or Viola Davis of How to Get Away with Murder. But I know women who look like each one of those beautiful women. And I know beautiful women who are as powerful as the Williams sisters and Michelle Obama.

I praise Rhimes for having Davis, on the last episode, remove her wig, false eyelashes and make-up to reveal a woman many black women might see in the mirror: A woman who has shed her facade to face a painful time in her life head-on. In order to be strong, Davis' character had to be herself.

It takes far too much time and effort for women to transform themselves into an ideal. It takes away from the strength they need to be women in a world that values men more.

We as a society need to stop requiring that of women. We also need to stop requiring that of men.

We are who we are.

Serena and Venus are to be admired. They should be who they know they are. These sisters have achieved greatness. The worst comment Tarpischev could make was that he didn't like the way they looked. That's a negative reflection on him, not them.

So much for all that "content of their character" stuff.