Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Backhanded Compliment

As published in The County Times ( in July 2008

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Do you remember when it was a big deal for Serena and Venus Williams to square off in the finals of a Grand Slam tournament?  For the record, they’ve done so 7 times with Serena holding a 5-2 edge (they are 8-8 overall against each other).  Well, they played in the finals at Wimbledon a couple weeks ago and the match passed practically without mention, certainly without major fanfare.  Some of this apathy has to do with decline of general interest in tennis, some of it to do with the historic battle on the men’s side between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  Still, these are the Williams sisters; yet their showdown in tennis’ most storied tournament couldn’t even grab the headlines in their sport (Federer/Nadal did), much less carve out a healthy slice of Sportcenter.  And did you know Serena Williams played for the Washington Kastles, her Washington D.C.-based team of the World Team Tennis (WTT) league, a couple weeks ago?  Me either.  It was merely a footnote in the local sports pages.  Did you even know she was on the WTT’s D.C. team?  Be honest.  I didn’t. 

What is happening here?  When did not just Venus and Serena, but Venus vs. Serena, at Wimbledon, become bologna and cheese on Wonder bread?  (If you consider that an exciting lunch, my apologies…work with me here)  Combined these two women have dominated tennis for a decade, winning 15 combined Grand Slam titles (Venus 7, Serena 8).  And from the moment they arrived, the stale tennis establishment had no idea how to handle them.  The sisters were not the next generation of conservatively clad, light-hitting products of a privileged tennis academy.  Oh no, they were athletic, powerful, expressive and, oh by the way, African American.  They learned the game, not at the esteemed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, but on public courts in Compton, CA.  They were taught by their eccentric and controversial father Richard, a man whose brutal honesty and overbearing and controlling nature left many concerned about his influence on his two young daughters.  To oversimplify, Venus, Serena and Richard were different and unconventional.  This made the media, opponents and fans uncomfortable, and this discomfort often spawned criticism.  Certainly the outrageous Richard has provided much material to critique and some of the criticism of Venus and Serena is justified.  Have they always dedicated themselves to being all they could be on the court?  Flatly, no.  They have both had periods during their careers when tennis was not a priority.  That has annoyed fans and many elite former players.  The expectation of course is that any player with such a gift for the game should be completely dedicated, single-minded in their approach, until their physical abilities are exhausted.  Yet tennis is only a component of Venus and Serena the people, it does not define them.  Maybe Serena will squander a chance to be best player ever.  Perhaps Venus will miss an opportunity to challenge Martina Navratilova’s record of 9 Wimbledon titles (she’s won 5).  But those goals seem less important to the Williams’ than to tennis’ brass.

After a decade of excellence, albeit not always sustained, and 15 combined Grand Slams, what did we expect from the Williams sisters?  Would we have rather had them burn out at age 22 like Tracy Austin?  Or was our expectation that they follow the path of Jennifer Capriati, who by 22 was fried and revolting against the weight of premature expectations?  Or what about Martina Hingis who holds many of tennis’ “youngest ever” records?  She was #1 in the world at 17, retired at 22, attempted a comeback four years later and is now serving a two-year ban for cocaine use.  Is that what we wanted?  Would we have been more entertained had they possessed the competitive drive of Chris Evert, a drive that often made tennis seem joyless for her at times?  They didn’t call her the Ice Princess for nothing.  For over 10 years now the Williams sisters have spent an unfair amount of time under the microscope, an on-going analysis so intense and overboard it blurred the line between sports journalism and tabloid garbage.  Now it seems the media has poked and prodded them to the point of exhaustion: the media’s exhaustion.  After all this time, the cynical research project has unearthed nothing more than two accomplished, grounded and well-rounded individuals, which by media standards is boring.  So boring in fact that little notice is taken of an all-Williams Grand Slam final.  And hasn’t hindsight’s view dictated we view their kooky father Richard with a little more respect?  Maybe this guy had it figured out the whole time.  He taught his girls the game and, despite awaiting riches, was extremely protective of their early exposure to professional tennis.  He also left them with a deep love and respect for one another that transcends the game.  Venus and Serena have never, regardless of the stakes or the tennis establishment’s desire, enjoyed playing one another.  They are sisters first, competitors second.  Richard also obviously taught them that the world doesn’t revolve around tennis as both women have significant interests off the court.  And for all the fuss Richard caused early in his daughters careers, he stealthily slipped into the background as his little girls became young woman.      

At age 28 and 26 respectively, the Williams sisters are likely entering the twilight of their careers.  I suppose, given its pursuit of controversy, the media’s lukewarm reaction to this year’s Wimbledon final could be considered complimentary.  I saw it as a missed opportunity.  Now is the time to celebrate these young women who, despite a constant watchful eye, have remained responsible and dignified.  They have consistently represented themselves and their country well.  And with so many other interests and opportunities, they could be gone from the court in a flash.  They don’t need tennis as much as tennis needs them.  These two sisters deserve our admiration, not criticism, our attention, not apathy. 

Extra Innings:  Golf is a game played mostly between your ears.  Want proof?  This past weekend, 53-yr-old Greg Norman led the British Open after three rounds and finished tied for third.  Norman hadn’t won a tournament since 2001 and hadn’t played in a major in three years.  Yet he arrived at the Royal Birkdale course to play a little golf on his honeymoon (he recently married the aforementioned Chris Evert).  After a couple squirts from the Tin Man’s oil can, the veteran proceeded to shock and amaze the golfing world.  Now I won’t feel so bad the next time my 60-yr-old dad schools me over 18 holes at Breton Bay.

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