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Sensemaker: The impact of Serena

Sensemaker: The impact of Serena

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died aged 91. 
  • The EU sent more than five million anti-radiation tablets to Ukraine as shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
  • Trump boasted that he has “intelligence” on French prime minister Emmanuel Macron’s sex life and his “naughty ways”. 

The impact of Serena

On Monday, Serena Williams walked into a sold-out stadium at the US Open to perhaps the loudest roar of her professional career. “I could feel it in my chest,” she said, “and it was a really good feeling.”

Her appearance this week at the US Open – she plays her second-round match this evening (7pm ET) could mark the end of an extraordinary professional tennis career.

A 23-time grand slam champion, Williams’ influence on tennis is undisputed, but her status as a cultural and political symbol is equally significant:

  • When she entered professional tennis in 1995 at the age of 15, there were few players of colour outside her own family. By 2020, there were ten Black female tennis players in the top 200 rankings alone.
  • Rising stars like Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff are just two of the players who have said that watching Williams play in their childhood inspired them to believe their own success was possible. 
  • Emma Radacanu, the British phenomenon, has said she has vivid memories of her first time watching Williams play at Wimbledon.
  • Mbuga Karani, the head of Tennis Kenya, said: “Tennis was a white man’s game in Africa. But when these two girls [Serena and Venus] started playing, all of a sudden we all discovered we could play and get into tennis.”

The tennis environment now is very different from the one Williams entered as a teenager:

  • Serena and Venus Williams faced open racism from tennis audiences, particularly at the beginning of their careers – the sisters once vowed to boycott the Miami Open after especially brutal treatment there.
  • Williams has throughout her career faced drug testing on a far more extensive and invasive scale than her white rivals. As recently as 2018, she was tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than twice as often as other players.
  • Serena and Venus were referred to as “the Williams brothers” by Russian tennis chief, Shamil Tarpischev, who declared them “frightening to look at”. 

Williams would quickly learn that on-court outbursts for which male tennis players have been celebrated – John McEnroe, for instance – would be viewed as somehow unforgivable coming from a strong Black woman. A 2009 US Open threat in the heat of the moment towards a line judge in the semifinals – “If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way” – dogged her career for years.

She would begin to call out these double standards increasingly explicitly, often giving her post-match press conferences an unusually political dimension for a sport not known for pushing back on racism. Williams would eventually embrace the stereotype of being an “angry Black woman”. In doing so, she said what many of us needed to hear.

What next? Williams’ influence today extends far beyond the elite world of western tennis. In South Africa, where I live, there are more tennis upliftment and training centres than ever before. Impoverished townships now have established tennis clubs with all-Black players. 

Williams’ venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, has already joined forces with NBK Capital and a number of other investors who are pouring money into African startups. One example is Andela, a Nigerian company that trains developers across the continent. Her firm will continue to focus on companies that “embrace diverse leadership, individual empowerment, creativity and opportunity” long after she lays her racket down. 

When South Africa’s wheelchair tennis champion, Kgothatso Montjane, made it to Wimbledon in 2018, there was one thing Montjane said over and over again to interviewers: “I am competing on the same courts as Serena Williams. And that makes me a star.”

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist and author. 


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Borrowing increase 
UK consumers’ credit card borrowing rose at its fastest rate since 2005, according to the latest Bank of England data. In July, the rate was 13 per cent higher than the same time last year. It’s a sign the grip of inflation – currently at 10 per cent with investment banks warning that could double by next year – is taking hold. Overall borrowing is still lower than pre-pandemic and savings made when consumer spending crashed in 2020 may give households a cushion limiting credit card debt. It’s also a sign that consumers are still looking to spend, which is good news for businesses contemplating soaring energy bills. That said, those increases will also hit households and this data doesn’t reflect behaviour change in light of the 80 per cent jump in the energy price cap come October. There’s a long, hard winter ahead. 


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

Hidden swimming pools
Inspector Clouseau has taken to the skies – helping French tax authorities search for thousands of undeclared swimming pools in back gardens. An AI system developed by Google and Capgemini is being used to cross-check aerial images against official property databases and identify unregistered swimming pools. More than 20,000 pools have been discovered so far, yielding €10 million in additional revenue from tax adjustments to reflect the increased property value. If the scheme is rolled out nationally, officials think they could pull in upwards of €40 million in additional levies by 2023. Swimming pool demand in France has increased in recent years because of lockdowns and heatwaves.  Although not without its glitches – the programme easily confuses solar panels with water – there are plans to use the software to also find undeclared annexes, extensions and verandas. 


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Adderall for sale
TikTok has become increasingly known for online communities that thrive thanks to its powerful algorithm. One group stands out: those with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are over 14.5 billion views for videos tagged #ADHD on the platform and hundreds of ADHD influencers post daily about their experience with the condition. Many also post on how to recognise the symptoms yourself, and digital health startups have spotted a niche. Vox has the long read on TikTok’s role in boosting prescriptions of Adderall, which can help manage ADHD symptoms. Cerebral, a start-up that began providing ADHD treatment last year, is one of the biggest ad-buyers on the platform and has seen a ten-fold increase in sales. The bubble could burst soon. Major pharmacy chains are refusing to fill subscriptions from some services and there are multiple federal probes into their practices.  


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Locked in
At least 27cm of sea-level rise from the melting of Greenland’s ice cap is now inevitable. Even if humans immediately cease all greenhouse gas emissions, 110 trillion tonnes of Greenland ice – or 3.3 per cent of the entire ice sheet – is doomed to melt, according to a study in Nature. Half of the net loss is due to surface melt driven by warm weather, and half is due to warm ocean temperatures accelerating glacier flow. The projected foot of sea-level rise, which the study’s authors say will likely take place before 2100, would have severe consequences for coastal communities. Many would drown. At least there’s still 96.7 per cent of the ice sheet to save.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Iraq’s political crisis
It started with a tweet: a statement by the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he was leaving Iraqi politics. The tweet tipped his devoted followers, already camped out in Iraq’s parliament building by Sadr’s encouragement, into a frenzy. At least 15 people died, over 100 were injured and a military curfew was imposed. Iraq has been in political deadlock since last October when Sadr won a majority of votes in a parliamentary election but was unable to pull together a working government with his rivals – particularly pro-Iran Shiites. In response, Sadr took the radical step of forcing all his MPs to resign, possibly expecting other factions to call his bluff. Instead, the MPs were replaced and Sadr was left without leverage. As Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, tells Foreign Policy, the decision has left him “appealing to the emotions of his followers” to exercise power. 


Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email us at sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com

Haji Mohamed Dawjee
@Sage_Of_Absurd

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Barney Macintyre and Laoise Murray.

Photographs Getty Images


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