Sandra Bernhard is an entertainer who crosses boundaries. She’s hard to categorize, because her performances comprise a mixture of humor, pop culture satire, monologues, fantasy and song. It should come as no surprise, then, that Bernhard is drawn to two WTA Tour players who have consistently sought outlets outside of the tennis court: Venus and Serena Williams, or “the girls” as Bernhard calls them. I noticed Bernhard tweeting about the Williamses, so I called her up to chat about her interest in the sisters, the persistence of racism in sports today, and “flipping out.”
TENNIS.com: I noticed on Twitter you’ve been following Venus and Serena. Are you a tennis fan?
Sandra Bernhard: I’m specifically a Serena and Venus fan. I have to say I liked Martina (Navratilova) and John McEnroe. I don’t think there are many players that come along with that much emotion. And the girls, Venus and Serena—to me when they play they put their whole life and their whole souls into it. You feel their emotion. You feel where they come from and the struggle they’ve gone through in their life every time they hit the court. It takes you on some kind of a journey and it’s compelling.
When I was thinking of you I couldn’t help but think of Venus and Serena and how you all seem to cross borders in your careers.
That’s right. I feel like when you have interests in the world and you have innate talent the way they do and without patting myself on the back, the way I do… I mean, I’ve just been drawn to different areas of entertainment, as a performer and a writer and artist. It spills over into a lot of different areas. For the girls it’s a natural crossover to want to design clothes or occasionally be an actor. Why should anything be precluded?
Venus and Serena have often been criticized for that. Do you feel people are threatened by someone having other interests?
I think for the girls, so many sports figures have just always had that (sport). It’s all kind of exploded now. If you have the persona and personality and you want to cross over, I think it’s just natural. Venus and Serena back it up with their immense talent and commitment to their sport. They have incredible personality. The minute they win the match or the tournament this whole other side of them comes out and you’re like “oh my God, you’re so sweet” you just want to run out on the court and hug them and take them to dinner, take care of them. I have this sisterly vibe towards them, they’re so close to their family and they’ve had a certain amount of tragedy and they’ve had this incredible struggle. I can’t say I relate to it as an actual experience but being from Michigan originally and I think the girls were born in Michigan (editor’s note: Serena was born in Saginaw, Mich.), there is a certain camaraderie and understanding to the afro-American experience in this country and I came from another era when it was different, more visceral. It’s still there, the racism. I was just looking at some pictures of Serena in Jane Magazine when there was a picture of her nude and there are ten pages of responses and some of them are positive and some are downright racist.
We’ve come so far, we have a black president and all these amazing sports figures and entertainers but there is a big portion of our culture that resents a strong, successful black woman. They can’t quite wrap their mind around it, and every time they step on the court they still have to battle that and I have a lot of compassion for them. It’s sad to me we’re still stuck on that in our society.
Do you think their other interests have helped them?
I think their side interests have kept them healthy and with a passion towards playing. You can have that outlet and break and have some fun and some other things in your life. What’s really funny, Serena was saying, “I’m studying, I’m doing something it takes 365 hours” and I was like “what is this?” and I find out she’s doing the manicuring school, which is funny because I was a manicurist to support myself when I first started performing. She tweeted back with me and I was like “oh my god, I went to the Charles Ross school of beauty in Beverly Hills,” and she said “what was it like?” It was really cute. I mean, I don’t know why she wanted to go take a manicuring course but I found it so adorable. She goes from high-high to low-low: going to major Hollywood parties and turning it out and looking like a million bucks, to sitting on a curb with her friends at manicuring school. I find that extremely interesting and diverse and inspiring that a person is willing to throw themselves into all kind of settings.
Will the Williams sisters be incorporated into Bernhard's act? (Stan Barouh)
That amazes me. As a performer on the road, it is disorienting and hard to wake up in a hotel room or be in a bus or on a plane and have to hit the stage. There is a big responsibility. But the sheer physicality of having to go out on the tennis court under all circumstances and have to give it your all, and really throw yourself into it no matter what you’ve just gone through… it’s pretty shocking people can do it. They’re young women and it’s pretty nice their mom travels with them, and I think they have their people who make sure they’re okay, which is wonderful. But you’re still the one alone on that court who has to do it. I marvel at that constantly, from the French Open to Wimbledon to the U.S. Open and Australian Open to all the smaller tournaments they play. It’s a sport for the young and healthy. You can’t sustain it after a certain point. It’s physically impossible. I think it’s a real testament to their commitment and excitement for the sport that makes them as good as they are and also makes them so understanding and compassionate to the world around them. I just think they are really good people.
I’ve seen you perform many times and you often create these wonderful, fantastical stories that involve famous women like Stevie Nicks. Have you ever thought of incorporating Serena and Venus into your act?
You know what? Now that you’ve said that, I’m going to write something about them! I can’t believe I haven’t done it so far but you’re right, they’re the perfect people to put in my show and do something crazy, one of my little celebrity flights of fancy and wrap it up with some sort of great song and really pay tribute to them.
Well, Serena is supposedly with Common.
Right, I’ll find a Common song! He is so handsome and so cute. It’s a fun idea.
What about your daughter? Does she play tennis?
We take her to Central Park in the spring, but her hand-eye (coordination) is not great. My girlfriend is a real tennis buff and she played when she was young. I can hit the ball across the net but we all love to watch it. It’s another strange thing: we never see it live. There is something about being in the bedroom in bed and waking up early or getting home late depending on when the girls are playing and just Tivo-ing it and coming home. During the Australian Open my girlfriend knew who won and I was like “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me! Was it Serena? You’ve got to tell me! I can’t take it!” And when she finally told me I could relax and watch the match. We really need to get to the U.S. Open; this is getting ridiculous. I have to make sure it’s on a day when the girls are playing.
Did you watch Serena’s infamous semifinal against Kim Clijsters last year?
Yeah, yeah. Listen, I don’t know what the total circumstances were. Maybe she was just burned out and hitting the wall. Nobody wants to see a great person lose it like that. I’m sure it was just a terrible experience for her. Or maybe it was a great experience for her. Maybe it was both! It was edgy. Listen, coming from someone who can fly off the handle and be super bitchy, I can understand it. She just flipped out. Everyone has their moments.
Serena and Venus are two of the only players who really make an effort, fashion-wise, on court.
Venus and Serena, they plan the shit! They got their color-coded tournaments. They come out and they give you headwrap. They give you big hoop earring. They give you big jewelry. They play with all that and they work it! And it’s so much excitement and glamour and you get swept up in it. It’s theatrics and a huge show they put out besides being fierce players. I just think it’s really exciting and they are just two of the most dynamic people in sports to me. Obviously I just adore them and I’d love to hang out with them sometime. Maybe in the right setting I could hang with them (laughing) but I’m not going to harass them, that’s for sure.
Sandra Bernhard will be performing live throughout the summer. For dates and information, go to www.sandrabernhard.com or follow her on Twitter.
David Rosenberg is TENNIS magazine's photo editor and a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com's Daily Spin column. Follow him on Twitter.