IF you want to spark a reaction on Twitter, just say something complimentary about Serena Williams.

"I can't stand the sight of her - she's the person who ruined women's tennis," was one of the more printable responses to a comment I posted last Thursday evening suggesting that Williams had not received enough praise for a staggering demolition of Sara Errani in the semi-final of the French Open that saw her lose just a solitary game.

Two days later, and Williams was defeating Maria Sharapova in straight sets to claim a 16th grand slam title. Did that lead to an outpouring of superlatives? Not exactly.

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Most of the public acclaim appeared grudging at best, while the media response to Williams' 43rd victory from 45 matches this season was muted in comparison to the deluge of column inches that accompanied Rafael Nadal's victory over David Ferrer a day later.

In part, that reflects the extent to which women's tennis is still seen as something of a poor relation compared to the version of the game that is played by men, but it isn't always like this and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something specific is involved when it comes to Williams.

It is equally hard to avoid the conclusion that that 'something specific' is related to issues of race and femininity, thorny subjects undoubtedly, but ones that cannot be ignored when one of the greatest sportswomen of our era is being denied the credit she deserves.

What is it about Williams we either dislike or distrust? The most common criticism hurled in her direction is that her playing style is predicated solely on power, and that her naturally muscular physique somehow gives her an unfair advantage over her opponents.

This is a desperately flawed argument for a number of reasons. For a start, you don't become the best player in the world simply because of an ability to hit the ball hard.

Yes, Williams' preferred playing style owes much to the strength of her shots, particularly when it comes to her serve, which is significantly superior to that of most other female players.

But her athleticism, precision and ability to consistently keep hitting the lines under the most intense of pressure mark her out as a supreme technician.

Particularly on the forehand, she can mix things up much more than she gets credit for, but even if her game was solely about strength, it's not as if such an approach is against the rule book.

So much of Nadal's play revolves around his repeatedly heavy hitting from the back of the court, his metronomic consistency and the competitive instinct that enables him to keep balls alive that other players would give up on.

In Nadal, that is a ferocious will to win. In Williams, it is somehow regarded as unsportsmanlike.

Is the distinction because Williams is black? It must surely play a part for some people on some level, yet it would be wrong to claim that society, particularly in this country and the United States, is completely uncomfortable with the idea of a physically powerful black champion.

On the football field, the likes of Patrick Vieira and Yaya Toure were lauded for their physical attributes. Americans are used to black footballers and basketballers using their size and strength to their advantage. Nobody seems to complain about the way Usain Bolt towers over his rivals in the 100m.

Yet the common denominator in all of these situations is that the athlete in question is a man. Try to think of examples of powerful black females - and the word 'powerful' here can have both physical and emotional connotations - and it quickly becomes apparent that Williams is blazing something of a trail.

The leading female sprinters are perhaps comparable, but none have dominated their sport in the way Williams has over the last decade-and-a-half, and so none have been subjected to the same sniping and judgement. The same can be said of Nicola Adams, another black sportswoman who has achieved success in a sphere where strength is all-important.

In many ways, Williams is a new type of champion, challenging conventions of what is deemed desirable in a sport that has strong, pre-conceived notions of what a women's number one should look like, and how she should perform and conduct herself on the court.

Williams' behaviour is often held up as another defect, and there have been times when she has strayed beyond the boundaries of acceptability, most notably when she threatened a lineswoman during the final of the 2009 US Open.

Again though, different things seem to be demanded of Williams than of other players. Roger Federer is no stranger to swearing on court, and can be churlish and argumentative in his press dealings, yet he is held up as the ideal sporting gentleman. John McEnroe's entire persona was built around his combativeness and fiery personality.

Williams isn't allowed to be like that, even though she would only be half the player she is if she didn't have an unquenchable need to succeed.

That competitiveness has enabled her to tower over her rivals, another stick that is used to beat her down. "It's an extremely weak time for women's tennis," is the cry, evoking a previous halcyon era, but conveniently forgetting that that halcyon era never really existed.

Steffi Graf, one of Williams' rivals for the title of the greatest of all time, once won a French Open final 6-0, 6-0, yet you don't find many people saying she had it easy.

Williams has overcome multiple obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the game, and continues to tackle adversity at every turn.

In 2011, she almost died after suffering a pulmonary embolism, yet within little more than a year, she was beating Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon to claim her fifth All England title.

Later this month, she will return to SW19 in an attempt to defend her crown. Perhaps in years to come, we will fully appreciate how privileged we are to be able to witness her achievements.




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