Serena Williams has responded to comments made by a male tennis player about her and her unborn child, calling Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase “racist” and “sexist”.
Nastase, 70, was once the world’s first No. 1 ranked male tennis player. At a press conference over the weekend, he was overheard discussing Williams’ unborn baby, saying: “Let’s see what colour it has. Chocolate with milk?”
The press conference in the Romanian city of Constanta did not concern Williams and Nastase had not been asked about the current women’s world No. 1 player. However, ESPN reports that Nastase was clearly heard making the comment while Romanian No. 1 Simona Halep was answering a question about Williams.
Williams, 23-time grand slam singles champion, recently confirmed that she is due to give birth to their first child in the autumn after posting a photo on social media of her baby bump. Her fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, is white.
As well as his comments about Williams, Nastase, who is still the Romanian team captain, was also heard asking his British counterpart Anne Keothavong for her room number. He later appeared to call Keothavong and current British No. 1 Johanna Konta “f***ing bitches”.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) swiftly issued a statement saying that it “does not tolerate discriminatory and offensive language of any kind”, and provisionally suspended Nastase pending an investigation.
In a post on Instagram, Williams said that she welcomed the ITF’s investigation, and expressed how frustrated she was that people like Nastase were still given a platform to voice such unacceptable attitudes.
“It disappoints me to know we live in a society in which people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments towards myself and [my] unborn child, and sexist comments against my peers,” she wrote.
“I have said it once and I’ll say it again, this world has come so far but yet we have so much further to go,” Williams continued. “Yes, we have broken down so many barriers – however there are a plethora more to go.”
The 35-year-old player – who has frequently spoken out about matters of racial injustice in the past, including police brutality in the US – said that she would not be cowed by people like Nastase.
“This or anything else will not stop me from pouring love, light and positivity into everything that I do,” she wrote. “I will continue to take a lead and stand up for what’s right.
“I am not afraid unlike you. You see, I am no coward.”
Williams then paraphrased Maya Angelou’s iconic poem Still I Rise, a paean to the strength of African-American women: “Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? You may shoot me with your words… you may try to kill me with your hatefulness, but still like air, I rise.”
On Monday, Williams – who had been briefly replaced in the international tennis rankings by Germany’s Angelique Kerber – returned to the No. 1 spot. Shortly before responding to Nastase’s comments, she posted an open letter to her unborn child on Instagram.
“My dearest baby, you gave me the strength I didn’t know I had,” she wrote. “You taught me the true meaning of serenity and peace. I can’t wait to meet you. I can’t wait for you to join the players’ box next year.
“But most importantly, I am so happy to share being number one in the world with you… From the world’s oldest number one to the world’s youngest number one. Your Mommy.”
Images: Rex Features / instagram.com/serenawilliams