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The view on Richard Williams

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Tuesday October 09, 2001 12:25 PM
 

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

Sorry I'm a day late. Don't blame me, though. I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Starting out with a cheerful topic ... Some interesting responses to my question about why there was, seemingly, so little outrage and righteous indignation regarding the domestic-violence allegations against Richard Williams. Thanks to the dozens of you who wrote in. Some of the various explanations about Williams père:

  • The behavior in question was rendered utterly trivial by the events of Sept. 11.

  • Richard's propensity for playing the race card has scared off detractors.

  • Could it be that tennis fans are so SICK of this guy trying to grab the limelight his daughters so richly deserve that we ABSOLUTELY DON'T CARE about ANYTHING related to his life? The better question is: Why do all networks insist on cutting to frequent shots of Richard in the stands during his daughters' matches? Note to all executive producers everywhere: WE DO NOT WANT TO SEE THIS MAN! EVER!
    —Betty Zeman, Cedar Falls, Iowa

  • The accusation is just that, an accusation. With all due respect to the sports media and their high standards of truth and justice, Richard Williams is still entitled to the presumption of innocence unless he is convicted in a court of law.
    —George Maiewski, Boston

    (NB: All true. But in my mind, once one of the principals -- i.e., Oracene -- asserts that the assault occurred, it moves from the arena of idle gossip into a legitimate topic for discussion.)

  • Attacking Venus and Serena directly is more rewarding for their detractors than attacking them vicariously through Richard. Therefore, people were much more incensed over the American flag photo, as it allowed a direct attack. Domestic violence is only a crime, not an opportunity to tear down Venus and Serena. Further, the victim was one of the dread Williamses herself, and therefore not worthy of sympathy. I could have said it a lot nicer way, but when all your answers come in, you'll find mine is truthful, if blunt.
    —Victor Venning, New City, N.Y.

  • I was certainly outraged, but as Prez Clinton's impeachment farce demonstrated, Americans (who I presume most of your readers are) now draw sharp distinctions between private and public life. Quite sad.
    —Ashok, San Francisco

    " The Williams family affair always seemed like a joke when Richard spoke of what a great father he was. I admire the sisters, and the father is simply not worthy of me wasting the energy and effort that an outburst would require. Further, domestic violence and athletes (or their parents, in this case) is about as shocking as athletes and drugs. I think as a society we have become numb to these things. Sad but true!
    —Kendrick Washington, Honolulu

  • Beyond this recent allegation, I have the distinct impression that Richard's contribution to the development of Venus and Serena into world-class tennis players has been overstated. Also, I think a lot of people who follow tennis have had more than enough of Richard's act. He has long been portrayed by the tennis intelligentsia as a "character." I suppose that's true if "character" is a code word for egomaniac, delusional or sociopath. To rub Richard's nose in this latest revelation would be easy and somewhat satisfying, but it would also be vengeful. It is my wish that for the good of the game, and, more important, for the good of the Williams family, that Richard either gets help or gets lost.
    —Mike Hershour, Etters, Pa.

  • Why are we so determined to tear down Richard Williams? I mean, I think that we can all agree he is flawed -- OK, I'll even give you obnoxious. And if the allegations are true, then add inexcusable to the list. But why do you seek criticism of the man? I just find it interesting that tennis fathers the world over are similarly flawed, obnoxious and even inexcusable at times (Agassi, Dokic, Capriati, etc., etc., etc.) yet there seems to be a campaign to impugn Williams for behavior that others can show, yet are never called on. Why is that? Finally, there is no doubt that as a tennis father he has had more success under tougher circumstances with less help than anyone else -- why do we have to flog him publicly, while only grudgingly giving the man the respect he deserves for his amazing job raising two of the best tennis players in the world?
    —Stephen Nurse-Findlay, Baltimore

    The one popular explanation I'm not buying: The incident didn't involve tennis and therefore is none of our business. In this respect, the WTA Tour has made its own bed. Women's tennis cannot trumpet the off-court personalities of its players, unapologetically sell sex, vow to take the sport "beyond the sports pages," and then, in good conscience, express outrage when fans and the media take an interest in topics other than second-serve percentages and backhand grips. Funny, but when the players endorse products having nothing to do with tennis, appear on television shows unrelated to the sport, or grace the cover of magazines like GQ and Vogue, no one seems to mind much. The popularity of the women's game -- and even of the Williams family -- is owed, to some extent, to the wealth of storylines and the cult of personality. When the script takes an ugly turn, viewers can't be expected, or asked, to suddenly tune out.

    On to your questions ...

    Do you agree that Martina Hingis will be a better player when she finally loses the No. 1 ranking? I recall how incredibly she played when Lindsay Davenport overtook her in late 1998; Hingis beat Davenport to win the Chase Championships and then stormed through the field at the 1999 Australian Open to regain the top spot. It seems to me that losing the ranking, ironically, will be akin to getting a big monkey off Hingis' back. She won't have to listen to the critics, and therefore she'll play with less pressure. In a weird way, Hingis the second- or third-ranked player sounds more intimidating than Hingis the top-ranked player. Your thoughts?
    —Karen, Dallas

    It's an interesting theory. But honestly, I think Hingis' confidence is so tenuous right now that her surrendering the top spot will be just another fissure, another indication that her era has passed. There are all sorts of financial reasons it will never happen, but I'd like to see Hingis take the rest of the year off -- thereby ceding the top spot to a rightful owner like Jennifer Capriati or Venus Williams -- and get her house back in order. Without a tournament win since February, Hingis' credibility is fading with each successive loss.

    Speaking of removing primates from one's dorsal side ...

    What in the world is up with Anna Kournikova? Forget about winning a tournament; I'd settle for her winning a match!
    —Jeremy Douglas, Los Angeles

    Indeed, Kournikova's ranking and status are plummeting faster than my 401(k). After losing to Anastasia Myskina (a talented player) two weeks ago, Kournikova dropped her first-round match in Moscow to a qualifier ranked outside the top 200 -- a brutally bad loss to a player she should be able to beat even under the worst conditions. At the U.S. Open there was scuttlebutt that her psyche was every bit as wounded as her foot. The other day I asked Capriati for the lowdown on Anna. JC claims that Kournikova's losses are just a function of her shaking off the rust as she recovers and returns from an injury. Still, this year thus far has been a total wash for a player desperate for a breakthrough.

    I was glad to see mention of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a consistent, beautiful and often overlooked tennis champion. Of Aboriginal descent, Goolagong reached the top long before other minority athletes such as the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods or track star Cathy Freeman. While Althea Gibson may have been the greatest trailblazer in women's tennis, why does the press seem to ignore Goolagong's career, even when discussing groundbreaking achievements by minorities in sports?
    —Daniel Rabbitt, Jersey City, N.J.

    Good question. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. The best I can come up with: Goolagong's accomplishments, while undeniably impressive, don't measure up to those of the Williams sisters or Woods. Further, because of the legacy of slavery and the history of racism/exclusion in this country, we rightfully attach the "trailblazer" label to African- Americans like Jackie Robinson, Woods and the Williams sisters. When the athlete is a minority but hails from a different country with a different past, we are less sure what to make of the situation. An example from tennis: Consider Yannick Noah. As popular a player as he was, Noah was never considered a trailblazer in the U.S. in the same way that, say, Mal Washington was (to say nothing of Arthur Ashe or the Williams sisters).

    I am fresh from seeing Magdaleena Maleeva being systematically taught how to play tennis by Kim Clijsters. Clijsters was so graceful on and off the court. Which brings me to the question: What could she see in Lleyton Hewitt? I mean, the guy doesn't have any manners! Also, what do you think Yevgeny Kafelnikov's strategy is? He has played roughly twice the number of tournaments of any other top-10 guy so far this season. Surely he ought to know that doing so hurts his stamina, intensity and health. I don't want to believe he is greedy. Any thoughts?
    —Rex, Liepzig, Germany

    First, Hewitt suffers from an incurable case of white-line fever. That is, once he steps foot on the court he does a convincing approximation of a horse's ass. But off of it, he seems like a perfectly good guy. At least that's been my experience. As for his relationship with Kim (Silent J) Clijsters, who knows/cares from whence the sparks come? But I will say this: At an age when men -- particularly handsome, world-famous, millionaire athletes -- can be a tad, um, cavalier in their dalliances with women, Hewitt has the Alan Alda thing going on. He watches Clijsters' matches, attends her tournaments, visits her in Belgium when his schedule permits, and generally behaves like an enlightened guy.

    As for your second question, Rex, Kafelnikov really is that greedy.

    How do you categorize Steffi Graf's backhand? Some people see it as a weakness that can be attacked; others think that it's actually her primary weapon. No one I remember was ever able to exploit Graf's slice, which caused problems for those who couldn't handle low balls and spin that well. It also mixed things up and forced players to return higher, perfectly setting up the point for Graf's forehand. What's your take on the issue?
    —Joey Castillo, Manila, Philippines

    I have heard players comment that the advice "to attack Steffi's backhand" rarely served them well. But I can't see how it was her singular weapon. If so, why would she have taken such extreme measures to run around it? Why would she often hit twice as many forehands as backhands in a match?

    I see Australia is considering going to grass for the Davis Cup final against France. There was a time when such decisions were considered part of the grand strategy; now I'm beginning to think it's a chintzy and ridiculous move, totally against the spirit of tennis, to gain a clear (and last-minute) advantage versus an opponent you fear. How about requiring countries, at the start of the year, to specify what surface they'll be using for the entire year? If a country suddenly and mysteriously finds that the surface isn't available, the opponent gets to host the tie. Any thoughts?
    —Alistair Wentworth, Toronto

    I totally agree. The cheesiest move in Davis Cup annals might have come when the U.S. imported clay to an indoor court in Florida for a tie against Australia in 1990. When Spain hosts the Australians on clay or, conversely, the Aussies host the Frenchies on grass, the outcome is all but a fait accompli. Everyone has an opinion on how to improve Davis Cup. But if it were up to me, figuring out a way to make the surface choice equitable -- and therefore make the ties more competitive and suspenseful -- would top the list.

    Regarding tennis commercials, I wonder if you ever got a chance to see the 1980s Prince commercial with God and a club player duking it out. God's racket head is fractionally larger than the size of a tennis ball, and the player is using some Prince monstrosity. The one point we see is God coming to net but getting passed despite a wonderful all-out dive for the ball (white robes and beard flailing wonderfully about, with some spindly looking legs flashing out from underneath), culminating in a satisfying "thunk" as he hits the ground.

    "Oooh, nice try," says the club player.

    "Lucky shot," says God, throwing his robes back over his shoulder while the club player collapses in a heap behind him with a little shriek.

    It's easily the funniest commercial I've ever seen, and it was yanked after about a week due to the typical furor arising over anything involving religion. I don't even think I have it on tape any more, alas.
    —Ben Temko, Atlanta

    Paul Merrigan of St. John's, Newfoundland, also wrote in about this. I remember the campaign's print ads, which were equally funny. Wonder what one of those Prince posters would fetch on eBay? This isn't, technically, a tennis commercial, but have you guys seen the current Conseco ads in which a dad's grand plan for retirement is to raise a tennis-prodigy daughter? Pretty funny. Especially for a company based in Indiana.

    With such advanced technology as Cyclops and CBS' Mac Cam, why not allow the chair umpire that same vantage? Couldn't officials put a small monitor on the umpire's chair so that he/she can decide if a shot was in or out?
    —John, Chicago

    I like the idea. The Mac Cam isn't infallible, but more often than not one can tell whether the preceding call was correct. And if the slo-mo replay is inconclusive, let the call stand. The only "problem" as I see it: The technology would be prohibitively expensive for most events other than the US Open.

    Rainer Schuettler's name is everywhere lately. What's his story? Has he just been lucky recently or is he improving and coming into his own? How high can he climb?
    —Scott Rohr, Minneapolis

    Rainer Schuettler is a not untalented player -- a dangerous floater, if you will -- who is cursed/blessed with the uncanny ability to play well at the least-heralded events. If you want to catch Mt. Rainer at a Slam, you'd better show up early. But if you want a darkhorse for the Asian circuit, you've got your man.

    I think female tennis players are some of the hottest women around. I think this should be celebrated with a calendar of these lovelies in bathing suits. Anna Kournikova is perfect from head to toe. Mary Pierce, what a body. Jennifer Capriati has great legs and feet. Do you think you could lobby the WTA into producing a calendar for us?
    —Charles van der Berg, Saddle River, N.J.

    If you're willing to move to Tampa, the tour could use a babe-leveraging innovator like you. Check out the WTA Tour's Web site.

    An enormous comet hits the earth and there is only one survivor other than yourself. It's up to the two of you to repopulate the planet. Which present or former WTO player would you hope had survived with you? Your top five, please. Just trying to find something you think Anna K. might be good at ...
    —Bill, Washington, D.C.

    Really, I'd settle for any of those hotties from the World Trade Organization.

    Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim, author of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour, is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com. Click here to send him a question or comment.

     
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