Williamses' antics undermine the tour
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
As expected, the 'Bag was overstuffed with questions about the latest Williams family melodrama. Most communiqués resembled that of Nicholas Matthias of Brooklyn, N.Y., who asked:
"I'm a huge fan of Venus and Serena Williams, but what's going on with these two? I was one of the many fans who waited by his television set to see the showdown between them. I usually disagree with everything negative anyone says about the sisters, but this stunt at Indian Wells just seems too suspicious. Do you think the WTA should investigate?"
Ironically, we addressed the Williams sisters' propensity for injuries a few weeks ago, but the topic is more relevant than ever. Much as the tour would like to impose some discipline, it has little wiggle room. Tour CEO Bart McGuire could surely invoke some broad "best interests of the game" clause and fine the sisters for their various vanishing acts. But it's hard to do that when your own doctor has signed off on the, ahem, injury. A monetary fine -- or even an investigation -- would likely prompt a political battle with Richard Williams as well as with IMG. If the tour merely rebuked the sisters publicly, it could forget about their cooperation at the next sponsor function, calendar shoot or awards dinner.
But make no mistake, last Thursday night was an unqualified fiasco, the effects of which will linger for months. Perhaps above all, it hurts tennis. In addition to the 10,000 spectators on site who were suddenly left to boo and demand refunds at the box office, countless other fans tuned in to ESPN for the match were SOL -- and no doubt clicking back to NCAA tournament games. If Venus had withdrawn earlier in the day, organizers could have shuffled the schedule and put a quality match on in prime time. Instead, fans on the couch got a tape-delayed contest from earlier in the day. Thursday was, in many respects, a banner day for the sport of tennis. The delightful Kim Clijsters had her star turn; Jan-Michael Gambill beat the world's top player, Gustavo Kuerten; Sampras and Agassi inched closer to a showdown. Yet Venus' last-minute pullout rendered it all fine print.
Too, the credibility of the WTA Tour takes a hit when two of its prime players are so notoriously capricious. At a time when the tour desperately needs to parlay its colorful cast into additional sponsorship dollars and a heftier television package, this sort of unreliability sabotages what little leverage it has. Imagine how the folks at ESPN feel about committing big bucks to the product of women's tennis when -- albeit on the first night of March Madness -- it had to scrap the Williams-Williams live broadcast and cue up the taped Martina Hingis -Clijsters match from earlier in the afternoon.
Above all, the episode hurts the Williamses' credibility and only fuels the widespread speculation that they treat the sport as something of a lark, that their father orchestrates match results. Part of what made Thursday's ordeal so putrid was that it was anticipated. After they won their respective matches on Wednesday, there was already plenty of buzz. Other players were speculating that one sister would pull up lame. The joke in the press room was that whoever lost the first set would retire with an injury. An ATP employee asked me on Thursday, "Think they'll actually play the match? I told Pete [Sampras] he should prepare for an early match."
In the post-mortem press conference, both sisters repeatedly used the word "competitor" to describe themselves. "We're always here to compete," said Serena, without a trace of irony. "We're competitors. That's what it all boils down to, who can compete the best. That's what I always like to do. I like to compete." News flash: "Competing" means playing when you're something other than 100 percent; it means occasionally playing through pain; it means playing under difficult emotional circumstances. Both sisters demean their considerable achievements, tarnish their legacies and -- as Saturday's booing of Serena would attest -- reduce their mass appeal with each spurious malady. You'd think someone in the Williamses' sizable braintrust of agents, advisors, and consiglieres would try to impress this point.
One wishes that Venus had watched Marat Safin's first match. Against his doctor's orders, Safin came to Indian Wells from Monte Carlo despite suffering from a back injury. Clearly in pain, he served at 75 percent his normal pace, winced when he maneuvered awkwardly and fell to Thomas Johansson 7-5, 7-5. Yet afterward, when a reporter asked why he didn't default or withdraw, Safin looked as though the question had been posed in Sanskrit. "Why?" he said. "You have to try. I tried. I mean, I didn't lose 6-0, 6-0. I tried." Here's hoping Venus tries harder this week at the Ericsson.
On to the questions ...
After making a big splash at the 2000 Australian Open, I keep waiting for Moroccans Hicham Arazi, Younes El Aynaoui and Karim Alami to have the same impact at other tournaments, specifically Grand Slams. Should I keep waiting, or did they all pull an ATP version of an "Iva Majoli" (who, by the way, gets torn up way too much in your column)? Also, on a related Mediterranean note, are there any promising Italian players to watch for besides Gianlucca Pozzi, who seems to be just now coming into his own?
I'll take your questions out of order.
1. Thanks for the chance to give some overdue credit to Majoli. You're right: We've probably harshed on her too much here. A top player once told me that Majoli "won the French Open in 1997 and has been on spring break ever since." In truth, she also had a laundry list of injuries that torpedoed her ranking and, in turn, her confidence. Now she's starting to play much better. She's still a long way from her high ranking of No. 3, but it's nice to see that her career is back on track.
2. Alas, the Marrakech Express seems to be grinding to a halt. Arazi, Alami and El Aynaoui all are wonderfully entertaining (the first two in particular) shotmakers who play with dash. None of them, however, is particularly consistent, and Arazi, the youngest of the bunch, turns 28 in the fall. It's hard to see them having an "impact" at Slams, but they're still worth watching.
3. Given that Pozzi is already eligible for the senior tour, we won't count him as an up-and-comer. The promising Italians seem to be on the women's side. Tathiana Garbin is a capable player. Giulia Casoni has been making appearances in main draws. Francesca Schiavone played out of her head against Jelena Dokic in the third round of the 2000 U.S. Open and is in the top 100. None is a future top-10 player, but you can keep an eye on them nonetheless.
Speaking of Elena Bovina, what do you think of her game? I saw a bit of her and was impressed with her power, and that she actually rushes the net sometimes!
I didn't realize we were speaking about the unfortunately named Elena Bovina. But I guess we are now. Anyway, I like what I see. I wouldn't be surprised at all if she became a top-10 player. She has the physique of Lindsay Davenport (she's nearly 6-foot-3) and plays a derivative game: heavy strokes, rock-solid backhand, a little shaky at the net. As a bonus, she's a great quote, already taking it upon herself to express her disdain for fellow Russian player Anna Kournikova.
Of the players in the top 10 right now, whom do you see as a for-sure Hall of Famer besides Monica Seles? And if Martina Hingis were to retire right now, do you think she would be able to get into the Hall with what she has accomplished so far?
Good question. I think there are plenty of active Hall of Fame players. Start with Hingis. If she retired today, she'd get in. Five Slams, excellence in doubles and 30-plus titles makes her a no-brainer. Davenport gets the nod, particularly given her gold medal and her affability with the media and fans. Seles, natch. You could make a credible case for Venus; less so for Serena. Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario's 700 career wins, her longevity and her assorted Slams make her a lock.
Peter of Boston asked about the chances of Conchita Martinez, Gabriela Sabatini, Jana Novotna and Mary Pierce. You could make a reasonable argument for each, but I say they're long shots. Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994, but little thereafter. Sabatini is probably the best bet, though she "thrived" during lean years in the women's game and still only won a solitary Slam. (On the other hand, she made 18 Slam semifinal appearances.) Novotna gets sympathy points for being such a fluid, easy-on-the-eyes player and -- how to say this? -- so utterly mortal mentally. Still, the numbers aren't quite there. If Pierce wins one more Slam, she's in. If the 2000 French was the pinnacle of her career, she likely falls short.
If you could pair any two players from the same or different eras, what would be some of your dream doubles teams?
Here are five:
1. Martina and Martina (still could happen)
Why don't the WTA and ATP market individual player merchandise the way baseball, hockey and football teams do? I would proudly wear a "Guga" T-shirt on the courts and would covet a cool "Seles" shirt. What gives?
Excellent question, one that a good many tennis insider types have been asking for years. Go to any sporting-goods stores and you'll see jerseys, caps and gear from all the major sports. But there's no representation of professional tennis. I'm in complete agreement with you. What could be cooler than apparel with the name "Gumy" or "Blanco" or "Ilie" or "Morariu" or "Davenport" stenciled on the back? Perhaps Hingis will initiate a trend. As ridiculous as she looks with that straight-from-the-irregular-bin jersey with one sleeve longer than the other, the warmup she wore at Indian Wells with her name on the back was très chic.
I see two impediments:
First, athletes' various clothing contracts would either prohibit it or make it a hassle. It would be so much easier if one company handled the entire order, but Yonex would produce Seles, Diadora would demand Kuerten, etc.
Second, with some players, you'd need Serena Williams' broad shoulders to fit their surnames on your back. Hard to imagine many of the players at my club fitting into the "Sánchez-Vicario" or the [Lina] "Krasnoroutskaya" prêt-à-porter collection. Meilen Tu, on the other hand, would suddenly see a spike in her popularity.
FINALLY, last week's Linda Richman, discuss-amongst-yourselves topic on cell phones at tennis matches drew dozens of responses. Thanks to those who, like the phones themselves, sounded off. Ba-dum. The consensus is that we live in an age of insufferable self-importance, when the assistant deputy associate broker of snap peas feels as though the stock market will collapse if he doesn't take that call while Lleyton Hewitt is serving. Many of you suggested that tournaments deactivate phones on the premises as some movie theaters are starting to do. Not a bad idea.
There were, however, a few dissenting voices. A particularly irate reader from the greater Jacksonville, Fla., area (where run-on sentences are apparently all the rage) wrote: "Jon, after you have a baby, and you finally get a day away from diapers and late-night walks to be able to take your wife away for a day or two at a tennis match, and you have a babysitter who has a boyfriend who drives a pickup truck because there's no one else available, you bring a cell phone and forget to turn off the ringer so it vibrates only -- or you don't have a phone that vibrates -- you'll begin to understand."
Ted McCarthy of Baltimore gets the last word: "During a match in a USTA tournament last summer, my opponent called a let in the middle of a point because his cell phone was ringing in his bag. Since I was winning easily, I didn't make a big deal of it. But still. It turned out to be his girlfriend calling to see how he did in the tournament. Imagine my satisfaction in listening to him say, "Honey, I'm losing 6-2, 4-1. I'll call you in about 10 minutes, OK?"
Have a good week, everybody.
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