As the WTA season wrapped up with the championships at Doha recently, Caroline Wozniacki, a 20 year old from Denmark, ended the tour ranked No 1 in women's tennis – largely thanks to her consistency in winning minor WTA events. For many, Serena Williams, though knocked off the top spot in the rankings and unable, through injury, to defend her 2009 Doha title, remains clearly the supreme player of her generation.
But in certain circles of the US tennis establishment, Wozniacki's emergence is seen as a positive development, precisely because it puts Williams "in her place". Chris Chase, a tennis correspondent for Yahoo Sports, for example, has a history of writing hostile commentary about Serena Williams. Recently, he accused Williams of "hyping" her foot injury – despite the fact that a torn tendon had forced her to pull out of all the season's remaining events. And, he writes, Williams' fans should simply "deal with it" if Wozniacki is the new No 1.
ESPN writer Peter Bodo is another long-time critic of the Williams Sisters. Earlier this year, Bodo called the Williams sisters' patrotism "false and self-serving" because they had failed, as he saw it, to make a firm commitment to play for the US squad in the Federation Cup. And when the sisters again chose not to play the Indian Wells tournament this year, where Venus and her father Richard had been booed and allegedly racially abused following her withdrawal with injury from a match against Serena back in 2001, Tom Gainey of Tennis X said they should get over it.
Given this form, the question has to be asked, when has an American-born tennis champion ever been so disrespected as Serena Williams?
One reason why the American tennis establishment resents Serena Williams is because she doesn't make tennis her life. Williams is so superior to other women on the WTA that she can play part-time – and still win two out of the four grand slam singles titles.
But some of the establishment's almost palpable relief at Wozniacki's elevation is, frankly, because she's young, white and blonde; and is a physical type that conforms more closely to western stereotypes of female beauty than Williams' highly athletic physique. A female athlete, it seems, is not respected for her hard work and dedication; she still has to be a product on display to sell to heterosexual male consumers – and a dark-skinned, self-willed African American is not the preferred model.
For all her consistency, Wozniacki has never beaten any of the big four: either the Williams sisters, or the Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. Wozniacki has a weak forehand, a lack of variety in her game, and the top elite women have the power to blast her off the court. The fact remains that Wozniacki is just another, relatively anonymous woman player who has reached No 1 without a grand slam title, just as Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina did. The idea that Wozniacki is any kind of "great white hope" is doubly misguided.
Recently, Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, told the New York Times he believes the USTA discourages African American youth from pursuing the sport because they don't want blacks dominating tennis, which is still, culturally, a white sport. That is a view that chimes with the fact that Maria Sharapova is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, despite the fact she's only won three grand slam singles titles – ten less than Serena Williams has.
So what is it that the Maria Sharapova or Caroline Wozniacki has that Serena Williams, the greatest champion US women's tennis has ever had, doesn't? Tennis ability has nothing to do with it. Prejudice has everything to do with it.