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More on the Williams controversy

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Monday March 26, 2001 11:57 AM

 

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

As one would expect, the Mailbag remains stuffed with questions about l'affaire Williams, a controversy that, for any number of reasons, has struck a deep and resonant chord. Your various takes were all over the map -- from "the Williams sisters should be suspended" to "the hateful fans and racist media should get off their backs." I'll try to excerpt some mail and address some themes that came up repeatedly.

  • "I agree that the Williams sisters need to stop pulling out of matches all the time. But why didn't you talk about the match-fixing allegation against their father? That seems to me much more serious than anything else."

    The charge of match-fixing is indeed much more serious than any other complaint, which is precisely why I chose not to discuss it. The implication that "the fix is in," that the competition is not legitimate, is perhaps the most damning charge one can level against an athlete. Until confronted with evidence and sources more credible than a National Enquirer story citing a "live-in nephew" and an alleged "ex-girlfriend," it's a non-issue as far as I'm concerned.

  • "Of all the rotten things athletes in many sports have done, up to rape and murder, I'm still not convinced that the Williams family deserves this level of animosity. On a less dramatic but important note to me, I choose to still be more bothered by, for example, Martina Hingis' homophobic comments and snotty attitude."

    You're right. As far as athletes go, tennis players are admirably virtuous. No Mark Chmura, no Darryl Strawberry, no John Rocker, no Ray Lewis -- yet another reason to like this sport. But that's irrelevant here. The animosity came because fans paid for tickets and felt that they had been taken for a ride. In part, they were upset because of the circumstances -- had Venus withdrawn 90 minutes before the match, at least the organizers could have scheduled a suitable replacement. Even more so, what vexed them was the lack of remorse. Imagine if Venus had walked onto the court and -- as plenty of other injured players have done in the past -- had grabbed the microphone and said words to the effect of: "It's with great regret that I have to withdraw. I have pain in my knee and don't want to risk anything. I apologize for the inconvenience, but rest assured I'll be back next year." I have to believe that would have extinguished a lot of the rancor, and perhaps we wouldn't be having this discussion a week after the fact.

    I fully agree that Hingis' homophobia -- and, again, her utter lack of remorse -- was every bit as troubling as Venus' behavior. But it's not as though Hingis got a free pass. Remember, Hingis was booed in her subsequent match with Amelie Mauresmo in France. And, among fans like yourself, she still hasn't lived down that episode. (As an aside, speaking of homophobic remarks, it's about time the ATP explained to Goran Ivanisevic that using the term faggot in his press conferences -- which he did again in Indian Wells -- is beyond unacceptable.)

  • "Obviously the Williams family is not blameless [but] I think you could also have slammed the crowd for its treatment of Serena in the final. This may come as a shock to much of the tennis crowd, but I'm not sure it looked good to much of America to see a large crowd booing a 19-year-old African-American -- for whatever reasons, plain and simple. I throw out the race card guardedly -- but our sport appears to have a justifiable perception of drawing lily-white, yuppie crowds. I've been pissed off on many occasions; for example, I felt cheated coming all the way from Chicago to the U.S. Open, only to see Serena pull out of doubles. But I still don't think acting like morons and cheering double faults is the answer. Do you have any suggestions for more constructive ways tennis fans could air their grievances about players?"

    Unfortunately, a more constructive way for fans to convey their grievances is to react with their wallets, i.e., to stop coming to matches and supporting the sport. As Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in a strong critique of the Williams sisters last week: "High-handed arrogance will undo the most popular celebrity. Venus, Serena and their father, Richard, had better come to understand they can thumb their noses at the media, at tournament directors, tour executives and even at their opponents, but not at the ticket-buying public."

    I'm with you that booing Serena during the final was in epic bad form. Though politically thorny, your observation about race is totally valid. Only the most obtuse among us didn't notice how ugly it looked when 15,000 overwhelmingly white fans -- albeit in a sport with an embarrassingly monochromatic history -- booed one of the few African-American champions. I spoke with Oracene Williams about this topic the other day. In the past, I've had several candid discussions with her about race and tennis. She had some understandably strong emotions watching her youngest daughter get jeered by the crowd. Her take on the fans: "They took off their hoods. It's all right if Venus and Serena compete, but if they win it's not OK. That's the reality of being black in America. But they prepared for this. If [the fans] thought that would hurt them, they were wrong. If you're black and from California and your opponent is white and from another country and the fans are rooting for the opponent, what does that tell you?"

    Playing devil's advocate, I asked whether she thought some of the crowd reaction could have been "Richard backlash," as I put it. Her response: "He may go overboard in talking, but that's no cause for the crowd to treat Serena that way. She's her own person and she's not responsible for what someone else says or does." Agree or disagree, fans would be well-advised to consider how their actions come across to a larger, more diverse audience.

    Having said that, one should be able to criticize Venus and Serena respectfully without being branded a racist. More than a dozen of you made this most grave accusation in the Mailbag. As one reader wrote: "A lot of you reporters are acting like a bunch of racist, ignorant bastards who would like nothing more than to see the Williams sisters fail." When some of us criticize Venus and Serena for their litany of injuries and sparse schedule, it has no more to do with their race than our criticism of, say, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, has to do with his being blond, Russian or unshaven.

    Likewise, the notion expressed by several of you that the Williamses "are slaves of the women's circuit" is simply offensive. First, women's tennis has given them a platform to earn millions in prize money and 20 times that in endorsements. More important, no one is forcing them to play on the WTA Tour. They are free to initiate their own tour -- and, to be frank, they would probably make a lot more money if they did so. But until then, there's no reason they shouldn't be following the same rules (i.e., no money up front, regardless of their effect on television ratings) and customs (i.e., withdrawing from a match with enough time to give the promoter a chance to make alternative plans) as every other player.

  • "What Venus did was inexcusable, but had she played and not done well, wouldn't the media say that the game was rigged? I don't think the Williams family can ever get a fair trial from the media because there is always someone to write something negative about it. I think the Williamses are damned if they do and damned if they don't."

    A valid point. Several of you also noted that when Monica Seles played on a bum ankle at last year's Ericsson and was served a double bagel by Hingis, she was booed off the court. Try and play, and fans suspect you're dogging it. Withdraw before you hit a ball, and the boos rain down just the same. I don't excuse the fans for booing either player -- particularly when Serena was the sister who was fit to play; particularly on missed serves and unforced errors. But, as I wrote last week, part of the problem at Indian Wells was a boy-who-cried-wolf effect. The Williams sisters have a history of withdrawing from events, retiring with injuries in the third set, and coming down with conditions that have never before been reported. Because of their track record, there was already abundant speculation that -- somehow, some way -- their match wouldn't come off. When it didn't, in the eyes of many, it was hard to write it off as mere coincidence.

  • "Let's give some respect to Serena for winning the final under very difficult circumstances, against an increasingly tough opponent."

    Absolutely. Lost, sadly, in all of this clamor is the fact that, in the face of the most hostile environment I've ever seen at a tennis tournament, Serena kept her cool and beat Kim Clijsters for the title. Love her or hate her, you have to applaud that.

    A final thought: I'm sure this controversy will linger, but I say we try to put it behind us and move on. For the vast range of opinions you guys expressed, I think we can all agree that it was a black eye that the sport hardly needed. To borrow a phrase, the Mailbag is a device to unite, not divide. In the spirit of healing and harmony, I propose we join hands as one and consider the following question for next week: Why is tennis so vastly superior to the sport -- nay, recreational activity -- of golf? Fire away.

    Back to the mundane ...

    What's your take on Magnus Norman? He seemed to lose his way when he was dating Martina Hingis. He then spent the first part of this year improving his game, resulting in his finals appearance in Scottsdale. But before we can say "He's back!" Norman loses to Nicolas Lapentti in the first round at Indian Wells. Do you think he has what it takes to make it really big?
    —Rhys, Singapore

    Depends what you mean by "really big." Norman is a solid top-10 player, but I don't see him as a future No. 1. He trains vigorously and hits a nice ball, but he lacks that X factor that makes champions. With the exception of last year's French Open, he rarely brings the goods at Slams and I'm not sure he competes well enough to be a true top-five player.

    Regarding his dalliance with Hingis: You have it all wrong. He played his best tennis when they were together. Take a look at his results in 2000 between Indian Wells and the U.S. Open, when they were an item. Now consider his results since then. If I were in his shoes, I'd be sending bouquets to Saddlebrook, Fla., and trying to get back in her good graces. Sergei Fedorov could recommend a bulk florist.

    What has happened to Jonas Bjorkman? It seems that only a couple of years ago he was in the top 10, and now he struggles through the early rounds of tournaments.
    —Ray, Redondo Beach, Calif.

    A top-five player just a few years back, Bjorkman has indeed dropped a notch or two. Then again, he turned 29 last week. Never a power player, Bjorkman has lost a step since his salad days in 1997, and other players caught on to his game. The good news, assuming you're a fan, is that he'll stick around for a bit longer. First, Bjorkman is one of the sport's good guys and is active in tour politics, so he's an easy choice for a wild card. Also, he and Todd Woodbridge comprise the world's best doubles team.

    I got my calculator out recently and punched in some numbers. Take the WTA rankings and divide the points total for each woman by the number of tournaments she has played during the past year, and here's the new top 10:

    Venus Williams 365.08
    Martina Hingis 286.33
    Lindsay Davenport 239.89
    Serena Williams 227.50
    Monica Seles 201.47
    Amelie Mauresmo 145.16
    Mary Pierce 143.23
    Jennifer Capriati 124.00
    Conchita Martinez 117.05
    Anke Huber 111.93

    Is it just me, or does this seem to be a much better representation of the past year of women's tennis? I know the WTA is trying to encourage the top players to play in more events, but it seems like it's shooting itself in the foot. Many of the top players are getting injured and playing less anyway. This only causes embarrassment to the WTA when the rankings do not match the average fan's interpretation of who the top players are.
    —Dwayne Seiber, Smyrna, Tenn.

    Using your formula, Capriati could have stopped playing tennis after Australia and finished the year as the No. 1-ranked player. Your point is well taken, but the tour's health is determined in large part by the draws of its events. Quite simply, it needs a mechanism that encourages the top players to compete as often as possible. Also, I agree that the tour had egg on its face after Venus Williams dominated the latter half of the season but still finished 2000 ranked only No. 3. But part of being the top player means playing a full schedule and making a full-time commitment to tennis. Just like the batting champ in baseball needs a certain number of plate appearances or the NBA scoring leader needs a requisite number of games, the top tennis players ought to compete in more than 10 events a year.

    I think moving the women's U.S. Open final to prime time is a good idea. The women's final was not served well by being played between the two men's semifinals. Do you think we will see the men's final at night in the near future?
    —Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.

    Ratings are the name of the game. On Saturday, CBS can afford to let tennis replace Walker, Texas Ranger -- except for the episodes when up-and-comer Sarah Rafferty has a guest role. On Sunday, when more of us watch television, the competition is stiffer. (What's more, if the men's final were aired live in prime time, those of us pathetically addicted to Sex and the City would be forced to make an excruciating choice.)

    I read in a UK newspaper recently that Martina Hingis' outfit with the long right sleeve is not so much a fashion statement but an attempt to add power to her shots. The story went on to say that the material in the sleeve (Lycra?) increases her power by 10-12 percent. I must admit, I find this a bit hard to believe. Is there any truth to this story?
    —Ingo Duckerschein, London

    By UK newspaper, surely you mean University of Kentucky. I can't imagine that even the most dubious British tabloid would run with that story. Still, in the interest of science and open-mindedness, I'll try a little experiment and write next week's 'Bag wearing lycra. Let me know if it's 10-12 percent better than usual.

    Is there some sensational and gossipy tennis matchup that's escaped all of our radar screens? This appeared on the Ericsson Open's schedule of play for Wednesday, March 21, 2001: "3. Elena Bovina (RUS) vs. Ruxandra Dragomir Ilie (ROM)."
    —Eric Weissman, Los Angeles

    Assuming you wonder whether Ruxandra Dragomir and Andrew Ilie had some sort of Romanian romance and eloped behind our backs, the answer is negative. Andrew Ilie is unmarried.

    Is it just me or does Kim Clijsters look like Martina Hingis' mom?
    —Dermot Pegley, Kitimat, British Columbia

    It's just you.

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