Navratilova has Gotten On My Last Nerve

I grew up watching Martina Navratilova. She’s my favorite tennis player. I come from a tennis family; my father was the tennis coach of his high school, and I played with my dad until I left for college. We always watched the matches, especially women’s tennis. My dad loved watching women’s tennis, and Martina in particular. For me, I was just bowled over by a woman who could do the things she could do — and as someone who had yet to recognize her queerness, Martina gave me another view of how a woman could be.

I read her autobiography — taken with a grain of salt, of course, as she was claiming bisexuality at the time. I was impressed by her defection to this country, and a little suspicious of her love of states like Texas. I railed against companies that wouldn’t give her contracts because of her lesbianism, and cursed out Rita Mae Brown in my head (while reading her books, of course). I was team Martina all the way.

But now she’s done it: Martina is the one who has gotten on my last nerve.

She’s not alone — there are plenty of people (white), mainly women, who are stating similar things to what Martina has said in her New York Times article. Mary Carillo, this morning on Velshi and Ruhle, called Serena Williams a bully. Mika Brzezinski, this morning on Morning Joe, talked about manners. And Martina Navratilova, this morning in the Times, wrote an op-ed: “What Serena Got Wrong.” All of them have stepped into something they know nothing about.

Here is a choice quote from the piece: “ It was here that Ms. Williams really started to lose the plot…she was insisting that she doesn’t cheat — completely believable, but beside the point.”

Another gem: “ All of this US Open history, combined, perhaps, with always feeling like an outsider in the game of tennis — I know exactly how she feels…”

Oh, and one more: “There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racquet…then I thought about the kids watching.”


Plot lines and narratives aside, she doesn’t understand anything about how Serena feels. When Martina was at the height of her career, there was one black woman in the top 20: Zina Garrison. Hell, my family was rooting for women like Gabriella Sabatini, just to find women of color playing tennis. Navratilova doesn’t understand what that’s like. She understood and respects the gentlemanly behavior of Arthur Ashe, without understanding that Ashe had a role to play, as a black tennis player. White players simply don’t have to think about that.

What she understands is what it feels like to be an immigrant, gaining her citizenship, and feeling different because of that. What she doesn’t understand is what it feels like to be a citizen with the same rights provided to Navratilova as a new citizen — yet not being afforded the same courtesy or respect that Navratilova automatically expected, as a new citizen. She doesn’t realize this, but she expected this because of her skin color. She is a white immigrant, not an immigrant of color. And as a new citizen, she could still command more respect and less suspicion than a Williams sister could in a department store. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to be Serena, because in this culture, white is the appropriate way to be. That’s changing, but not nearly fast enough.

In tennis, white was the appropriate way to be — until the sisters came on the scene.

And then came that backlash…from the WTA and its members.

The number of articles written, the commentary of their competitors…the “chips” on their black shoulders, and, eventually, how loved Venus is by the tennis world in comparison to Serena…

Well, here’s a hint: Venus took her cue from Arthur Ashe. Cool as a cucumber she was, and is. And everyone loves her. She’s playing her role, as he did. Serena? Not so much.

When Navratilova says that Serena’s point is wrong about “men do it all the time — women should be able to as well…” When Navratilova says it’s beside the point if it would happen to a man, she doesn’t understand what she’s been watching. Women handle emotion in all different ways: Navratilova cried during her matches; Chris Evert got steely; other women, like Billie Jean King, get mad. Serena is the queen of anger, able to use it in a way that works for her. To be punished for something that is natural in any male sport is not only unfair, it’s unseemly.

The point is, fairly or not, Navratilova is still a white woman of privilege who seems to think that the playing field here is equal. That race did not play a part. What seriously disappointed me was her stunning ignorance (willful or not) of the racism that the Williams sisters have endured since the beginning of their careers. I expected more, erroneously, because she’s a part of the LGBTQI community — my queer community. I was so wrong.

Since we seem to be having two separate conversations (now folks want to talk about manners in tennis), let me lay out what this match was for me. Considering that I am a black woman, I know I’ll be echoing the viewpoints of many women of color out there:

What has happened here for many of us is that a historical day for black and brown women was ruined by a man who couldn’t stand a woman of color demanding an apology from him. He used his power — to ruin Serena’s chance, and to ruin the experience for that beautiful young brown woman, Naomi Osaka, whom he obviously didn’t give a shit about. Black and brown women deal with this every day — and we also deal with people like Martina Navratilova who refuse to get the point.

I just want to ask the question: whether it’s Carillo, or Brzezinski, or Navratilova, who all seem to have opinions about this black woman whose skin they are not in: don’t you ladies have black women in your lives? Are they friends of yours? If so, could you please go and ask them how they feel about this case? And not speak while they’re speaking? And keep an open mind that there’s a whole other world out there that you know nothing about, and all you can do here is learn something new?

I’ll get over it; we all have to, as black and brown women, if we want to keep our zen. We always smile, vent in private, shake it off, and go on with our lives. As Zora Neale Hurston said: “I do not weep at the world; I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” We’ll do what we do.

But it’s going to take me a minute to get my love back for Martina.