What to make of the recent Wozniacki-Williams towel-stuffing tennis incident?
In an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova in Brazil earlier this month, Caroline Wozniacki mocked Serena Williams by stuffing her shirt and skirt with towels. It was not the first time Wozniacki has performed her towel-enhanced impression. The two tennis players are reported to be friends.
The incident was the topic of discussion everywhere, from Jezebel to ESPN to The View, with the commentary largely focused on whether or not Wozniacki was being racist, funny, or simply insensitive.
“It’s sad how Serena Williams is one of the best tennis players in the entire world, and yet her importance still gets reduced down to her body shape simply because her physique doesn’t match the majority of her fellow female tennis players,” Madeleine Davies writes for Jezebel. “Fucked up as it is, it makes sense that they [tennis players on the tour] would make fun of her body; turning her into a caricature or a joke will make it easier to stomach all the times she wipes the floor with them.”
Over at ESPN, Jess Mendoza and Julie Foudy, softball and soccer stars respectively, suggested that Wozniacki’s impression should be seen as more of a joke than an insult, noting that these types of acts happen often on the tour.
Which is a notion with which columnist Jemele Hill agrees. “I understand why it made some black people uncomfortable. For years, Williams’ body has been scrutinized in a way that is drastically different from her professional female peers,” Hill writes for ESPN. “Unlike a lot of the other female tennis players, Williams is powerfully built. She’s not a stick figure, and flaunts her voluptuous frame.”
“Williams’ physical assets aren’t considered the norm,” Hill continues, “since on nearly every women’s magazine cover (and not a few targeted at men) there seems to be a rail-thin teenage girl. Even in sports, most of the female athletes who are widely considered ‘hot’ are shaped more like magazine models.”
But in the end, Hill determines that while Wozniacki’s joke “picked at some cultural insecurities,” it was in the spirit of jest. “Wozniacki might not exactly be Tina Fey,” Hill concluded, “but she certainly isn’t Mel Gibson.”
Others, though, were clearly uncomfortable.
“I know they’re friends,” Sherri Shepherd offered on The View, “but still it does something inside of me because we’ve been made fun of for so long for different parts of our body. And to see Serena Williams reduced to this, I don’t like it.”
To which Whoopi Goldberg added by asking the question, “Why Serena? What is it about her?”
Regardless of the intent of Wozniacki’s impression, tennis has long been perceived as a white country club sport. The Williams sisters, who happen to be two of the best female players the game has ever known, are African-American, and grew up on the public courts of Compton, in Los Angeles, surrounded by “gangs and guns,” as Venus recalls. This reality seems very present whenever their domination of tennis over the past 20 years or so is discussed. And its presence seems unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
As some have suggested, if Wozniacki really wants to impersonate Williams, she should aim to imitate Serena’s remarkable 14 Grand Slam championships—obviously, a much tougher task.•