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The serve

The Williams sisters’ feminist space of possibility 23m by 8m long

022 ar 03 essay theserve

022 ar 03 essay theserve

Aligning the feet

On 9 July 2016, my little sister’s birthday: Serena Williams won the Wimbledon final, gaining her 22nd grand slam title. The semi-final had seen a showdown between Serena and her sister Venus, one reminiscent of the sibling rivalry which had defined the previous decade: on this court they had met – in 2000, 2003, 2008 and 2009. It was a reminder of the 27 times in total that Venus and Serena have met each other at the final stages of the world’s major tennis tournaments. Since 1995, I had seen these two sisters grow up in the space of the tennis court and claim it as their own.  

Holding the ball with fingers in formation

Three months earlier, Beyoncé had released her Lemonade album. Fourth song into the album, between ‘Apathy’ and ‘Emptiness’, Serena Williams had appeared on my screen again, this time taking ownership of a different space; the domestic and the colonial. In ‘Sorry’, Serena strides and grinds through a Louisiana creole plantation house, eventually meeting Beyoncé lounging on a throne in the living room. Beyoncé appears to take back and negotiate the space of her creole ancestors, and darker-skinned Serena Williams is leading the way. ‘I ain’t sorry! I ain’t sorry!’ goes the track: unapologetic and euphoric. 

Starting the backswing

Those of us who, as toddlers, watched the Williams sisters stride, hair-beads clinking, onto our screens are now in our twenties watching them break through the last remaining tennis records. When I was just old enough to sit up and watch, the sisters launched their professional careers: ‘A new teen-lit narrative constructed on ideal, mythical space delineated by a 2D rectangle. The perfect lawn, perfect plastic, perfect clay landscape, for girls like us everywhere!’ And yet now it seemed, as I looked at the TV screen, a narrative constructed just for me. 

Extending the body

After some time I left my TV screen, my parent’s living room, Croydon; and made a career being a black woman attending white elite institutions, just like the Williams sisters. I took a break to become a black woman designing window details for white professionals to look out of. And as I re-entered education again, I surrounded myself with Neoclassical architecture, grand facades, big steps: the environment that, in this country, is curiously mandatory for those pursuing an academic education. I became a caryatid, a Greek column, passive stone woman, outside the Crypt gallery, supporting the heavy stone portico.

In her book Citizen, Claudia Rankine asks: ‘What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”.’ Serena and Venus swapped their zany co-ords and corseted lycra of the ’90s, for stark bleached white high neck with the classical skirt, the only colour-black confined to a tiny Nike tick right in the centre of Serena’s chest. 

Releasing the ball

Throughout my adolescence, Venus Williams maintained the record for the fastest ever serve by a woman. The fastest a ball has ever moved after being thrown up in the air by a woman-hand, and smashed back down to the earth by a woman-arm wielding a racket.  In Iris Marion Young’s essay ‘Throwing Like A Girl’, written the year of Venus’s birth, she sets out a feminine phenomenology that might beget a young girl like Venus as she made her way in the world: a ‘feminine’ sense of space is one where a person’s body is lived as a thing that is other than themselves. Because of an internalisation of a patriarchal gaze, and a lack of belief in her body’s ability, a woman might self-consciously configure themselves as object in space, as well as subject.

In contrast to a masculine sense of space, where one experiences themselves as subject acting on an object. As Oracene Price brought the oldest sister into the world, Young wrote: ‘We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance rather than the media for the enactment of our aims. We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our body to make sure it is doing what we wish it to do, rather than paying attention to what we do through our bodies.’ Maybe, this feminine spatiality had extended to people of colour. Black women sometimes remembering that bodies like ours were first persons, then shipped by the slave trade into objects, tools and commodities, and then, still, living in this hybrid, cyborg mode of object-personness. 

Increasing the racket speed

But fast-forward to 10 years ago, stop and slow action replay the moment when Venus Williams releases her 207.6km/h serve: now Venus Williams’ subjectivity is completely within her body (much taller, ‘stronger’, bigger than the other bodies, the commentator will chant as her weight shifts from one foot to the other). 

She blocks out the elite crowd’s gaze and focuses her body’s embodied knowledge. At this split moment in time, in this gesture, her body is not an object; instead in the swing of her arm she had achieved a complete unification of body and mind. As she reaches this mode of being, racket strings meeting ball, she gains agency, she becomes a space-building agent. And she continues to build and manipulate space through to the end of that point, when she will serve again. 

Serving again and again from that foundational baseline, the Williams sisters gain full serve. Maybe that’s how Serena and Beyoncé first connected – maybe in singing with all your heart you can lose self-consciousness, and reach a similar mode of being – a confident, competent wholly acting state. I too, started to sing, belting out Alicia Keys at the top of the UCL quad. Reversing my caryatid state, the structure of the institute was now supporting me. I became the actor in the scenario; the grand steps became my stage and the portico amplified my voice. The sisters had rearranged the bricks of the institution. 

Accelerating the follow through

Had Matthew Williams, the sisters’ coach and father, encouraged them with the same phrases my dad told me? Phrases to maximise self-esteem, imbued with the language of space, multiplication and scale. Let’s make more of ourselves, think big, expand our horizons, and later as my feminist friends told me ‘make a safe space’. My role models, Serena and Venus were ‘larger than life’. Could I take this literally – increase my self-esteem by literally multiplying, by making more of myself? l wanted to expand into space, to become bigger, to take more space in the living room. To maximise my self-esteem. 

Celebrating my sister’s 18th birthday last year, I came back to my parents’ house again. There were Venus and Serena, creating a feminist space of possibility 23m by 8m long. Sister to sister, the space was generated between them, racket to racket. As I watch them play it is apparent to me, and their opponents, that this space belonged to them. For decades they had worked hard at the landscape of the tennis court, skidding through the grass down to the clay, to create a real, physical space for themselves, and take ownership of a space at the heart of a white, elite club.

Ana Mendieta embedded her body into the earthy landscape. Fannie Sosa encourages black women to re-open our posture, and twerk in circular groups. Lorraine O’Grady left her house, dressed up, with a big smile, and attended politically dank private views in gallery spaces, as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, whipping herself with a cat o’ nine tales made from carnations. 

Sailing over the net 

Though the high-speed ball scorching the Wimbledon lawn would send vibrations to my back garden, through the screen the impact did not just start at the sky and end at the earth: from courtside, the camera projected sisterhood into another spatial dimension – projecting, LIVE!, this unique and spectacular generating of black feminist space into millions of living rooms, into another feminine realm – the domestic. 

When I turned on the TV our lives intermingled again through televisual waves traversing the black Atlantic; beyond the tramlines, the screen, into my home. The clay court as their medium; every hit of the ball reappropriating the earth and moulding it to make a vessel to use, sitting among the crockery, the bronze-covered terracotta and glazed knick-knacks my mum had already placed there. 

Ball’s in your court 

It’s true that the story I’ve just told to you is different from the specific strand of capitalist, spectacular, American Dream narrative of the Williams sisters’ success that you will recognise from the match interviews Sue Barker constructs. However, I can say that the story I’ve told you is the true truth, as told to me by Venus herself, when I met her when I was working in the Wimbledon branch of Monsoon Accessorize one summer. The Williams Sisters: spatial agents working with me and other black women across the world, to gain spatial territory and reach maximum self-esteem. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy