By Fungai Machirori
I always thought it was Venus who would be the more decorated tennis player of the Williams sisters.
Perhaps it was something to do with the way she was constructed in the media. She was, as I was made to understand all those years ago, the more “lithe” of the two sisters; in other words, even if her skin colour didn’t conform to the normative standard of the time she and Serena entered the fray, her physique approximated better what a conventional tennis player of that time ‘should’ look like.
I felt elated at watching Venus win her first Wimbledon title back in 2000. As she smiled and leapt across the court – having beaten Lindsay Davenport in straight sets – the match commentators all but confirmed her ascent to tennis queendom. The older of the Williams sisters, Venus finally had a Grand Slam title to match that of her sister. And the Venus Rosewater Dish, her trophy, could not have been more aptly named.
I was 16 years old back then; the greatest of my concerns my mid-year exams, and perhaps a little further down in my line of thought my year-end Ordinary Level exams. Zimbabwe was a different place back then, but already displaying the cracks across its socio-political terrain that would widen over the years into the chasms of dissent and disenchantment that many now know the country for. By 2000, however, the only national broadcaster – which would eventually feature less and less international content in a move to create a more indigenous and insular media – still featured live Wimbledon finals broadcasts, something which has since been dispensed with.
Watching Wimbledon finals had been a tradition for me in my childhood as I became acquainted with the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna, among others. But Wimbledon was the only of the four grand slams that was broadcast live to us. And I wonder if it was given this place of tennis prestige as a result of not only Zimbabwe’s British colonial history, but a strong national inclination towards British sensibilities. It’s been mentioned before as a contradiction of Zimbabwe’s now fractured relationship with Britain how President Robert Mugabe speaks impeccable ‘Queen’s English’.
Locally, tennis interests had also been piqued through the famous Black family – consisting of Cara, Wayne and Byron – who had helped grow Zimbabweans’ interest in the sport, competing fiercely at grand slam events and other prestigious international tournaments. But as with other elite sports like rugby, cricket and hockey, high standard performance in tennis in Zimbabwe was almost entirely the preserve of the middle class, with the white middle class predominant.
To watch Venus win Wimbledon, therefore, was to disrupt everything I thought I understood about tennis. To see her prance and twirl across Centre Court was to challenge many things I understood and had internalised about this sport. It was to see myself represented, to feel as though I was there somewhere in that arena, offering an excited ovation, even if I was really thousands of miles away.
One of my most endearing memories as a tennis fan is when in my second year of university, I camped out at a seedy bar to watch the women’s Wimbledon final, again featuring Venus and Davenport. By this time, tennis was no longer being shown on national television anymore and this bar served affordable (read ‘cheap’) drinks and had a satellite television link; a compromised win for me. And so there I sat, confounding many of the patrons as I sipped slowly on my orders of ginger ale, entirely focused on the large screen overhead. To most of them, this was confounding and a disruption of their perceived ideas of a woman’s ‘role’ or ‘place’ in a bar.
Watching Venus and Serena, their braids and beads sweeping across their sweaty, determined faces as they have fought their way from many places – both personal and professional – that many wouldn’t recover from has been an absolute inspiration.
And watching their recent doubles final win at Wimbledon was particularly emotional.
I wondered how many more of these spectacular moments I would get to witness from these two. How many more moments of this defiant excellence I would get experience in the years to come.
It’s 16 years since that first win that converted me into the tennis enthusiast that I have become. Venus didn’t quite become who the pundits thought she would, but her seven singles slam titles are glorious and memorable. And of course, Serena stands majestic and uncontested at 22 grand slam titles, with the drive and talent to win even more.
Much has changed in my life, and sometimes I yearn for my teenage years when my biggest concern was a slew of assignments and exam papers.
I yearn also for another Zimbabwe; one that might offer stability and nurturing for dreams as big as those the Williams sisters have birthed. And I hope for a world in which black excellence, is less of a novelty, and more of a norm.
Yes, it is 16 years later.
But somehow, some things have remained constant.
Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean writer with interests in feminism, identity and historicisation. You can follow her on Twitter at @fungaijustbeing. This article is part of the Black Feminisms Forum ahead of the 13th International AWID Forum.