Monday, January 5, 2009

Revisiting Indian Wells, 2001


On March 15 2001, I was eagerly anticipating the sixth meeting of the Williams sisters as they were scheduled to play in the semi-finals of the tournament at Indian Wells. Venus and Serena Williams were two of the most exciting players in women's tennis and I was intrigued by watching them negotiate their encounters while still maintaining their close bond as sisters. I was excited to see two proud, strong African American women beginning to dominate in the sport I had played, taught, and followed for most of my life.

Needless to say, I was disappointed when ESPN announced that there would be no match, since Venus had defaulted, citing knee tendinitis.

My disappointment evoked feelings I had back in the mid-1980s when I taught tennis at UCLA. An ATP tournament was scheduled for the UCLA courts and John McEnroe was slated to meet John Lloyd in the semi-finals. I looked forward to seeing the infamous McEnroe play on the same courts where I taught. About 30 minutes before the match was scheduled to begin, McEnroe called it in—saying he was too sick to play. The tournament directors hastily organized an exhibition match that was of little consolation to the fans. The majority of the people in that crowd had come to see John McEnroe, not a last-minute substitute.

Herein lies one problem with tennis--when someone defaults, there cannot be a meaningful substitution--no matter how skilled the players who are called upon to substitute. Even if Jimmy Connors had agreed to play at the last minute, that match at UCLA would not have "mattered" to the angry fans who anticipated seeing McEnroe.

In this regard, tennis is very different from other sports. Suppose I wanted to take in a Cleveland Cavaliers' game and to see one of the most exciting players in the game, Lebron James. If I paid for a ticket and traveled two hours to see him play, I would understandably be disappointed if I found that he had been scratched from the line-up due to injury. Despite my disappointment, there would-in all likelihood-still be a game because the Cavaliers have enough players to field a team even if Lebron cannot play. Yet, if a tennis player defaults in the semi-finals or finals of a tennis tournament, even a strong substitute opponent cannot play a "meaningful" match.

So, I understand the disappointment that fans may have felt when Venus defaulted to Serena.

What I do not understand is what occurred two days later, when Serena played Kim Clijsters in the finals. Keep in mind that Serena was only 19 years old. Also keep in mind that tennis has historically been a game in which certain protocol is followed when watching tennis--fans are expected to remain silent (for the most part) during play, and they typically applaud politely for well-played points, even if it is for someone who is not their favorite player. With the possible exception of Davis Cup, fans do not usually applaud or respond vociferously to one player's misfortunes (i.e., serving a double-fault, hitting a shot into the net, etc.)

Given these assumptions, I watched with great consternation as Serena was introduced at Indian Wells, amidst the loud booing of fans. I was further dismayed to see that the booing continued after play began, with obvious unsettling effects on Serena—she lost the first 3 games of the first set. Somehow, Serena managed to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. However, when Venus and father Richard Williams entered the Stadium, the booing and ugliness grew worse. According to Richard Williams, about a dozen fans hurled racist epithets and someone spoke of skinning him alive. While tournament director Charlie Pasarell admitted that he was “embarrassed for Serena and humiliated by the crowd” his response to Richard’s allegation was curious. When asked about the racial taunting, Pasarell commented “If Richard says someone yelled something, maybe they did, but I know that's not Indian Wells people." Apparently we live in a time when there is what Eduardo Bonilla Silva terms Racism without racists.

I remember thinking at the time that tennis would finally have to confront the reality of racism. Indeed, New York Times journalist George Vescey wrote in 2002 that the Williams’ sisters could lead tennis into a more “enlightened era” by forcing tennis to come to terms with racism. Sadly, it appears that tennis has not yet done that. Most recently, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tour CEO Larry Scott announced its Road Map for 2009. Included in the provisions is a requirement for top-ranked players to play in four tournaments, including Indian Wells. Players who do not play will be sanctioned by not being allowed to enter two subsequent tournaments. That could obviously have huge ramifications for rankings points, but would also be a disappointment for fans.
The Williams sisters have boycotted Indian Wells since the racialized incident that occurred in 2001. Therefore, it is likely that this issue will come to a head in March 2009, barring unforeseen circumstances that could lead to a settlement before that. What troubles me most about this impasse is that the WTA does not seem to have (publicly) acknowledged that the Williams sisters’ reasons for boycotting Indian Wells are valid. I believe it behooves the tennis world to revisit the events that occurred at Indian Wells on March 15 and March 17, 2001. If I were the Williams sisters, I would insist upon a public apology for what happened at Indian Wells and seek an assurance that such an ugly incident would never happen again!

Next: “The Roadmap to Nowhere?”

9 comments:

T or Q said...

Hi Nancy - Do you know, or have thoughts about whether the decision to include Indian Wells as one of the mandatory sites was intentional in relation to the Williams sisters? Thanks for the updates -- this will be a good issue to talk about in my sport soc class this spring. Theresa

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

Hi Theresa,

That is a good question. I will have to check it out. Indian Wells was formerly among the top tier tournaments, which has to do with the size of the tournament (in terms of prize money and other perks). That is something I will address in the next post, so I am glad you asked it. I do know that Venus Williams is on the Player's Board that approved the Road Map, and yet she has stood by her decision to boycott IW, as I believe she should.

I would be interested to know what your sport soc class thinks about this issue. Thanks, Nancy

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

The following message was sent to me by Earl Smith. He asked that I post it:

Dear Nancy:

Nice commentary.

But, whose fault is it?

Is Indian Wells any more "racist" than any other venue? If so, how is it demonstrated empirically?

It seems to me that the issue is not about James or some other sport--hey i went to see Mickey Mantle at Yankee stadium and he did not play--but what takes place in tennis.
I think there are / were issues with Zina Garrison, before the William's arrived on the scene and of course Ashe.
Is there something peculiar about tennis fans, when it comes to players who do not look like all others?

Hey, flesh this out into a full-bodied piece of research on "race" in tennis, a country club sport.

Richard has been made out to be the BOGGY MAN for all sorts of reasons and maybe he did "plan" on not having his little girls play each other. What of it?

I think there is a nice article here "revisiting Indian Wells as a sociologist not as coach, or player.

I will take more time thinking about this and like Theresa (HI), I am using this--with your permission of course--in my spring 2009 soc of sport class at Colgate.

Thanks for posting this as I know you are passionate about this issue.
Nice pics!

best wishes,

Earl

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

Hi Earl,

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I would love to hear what students have to say in your class (and also Theresa's). We will be discussing the topic in my graduate class as well. I hope people will feel free to post their thoughts and to further dialog on the topic.

As for tennis being different from other sports, I think it is more insular, and of course, has the history of exclusion--which is what Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe faced as well. There are a number of factors that probably contribute to its exclusivity: cost, being a country club sport (as you mentioned), and therefore, above all--being class-based. Delia Douglas has written quite eloquently about the dynamics that contribute to tennis' exclusivity, in an article that appeared in SSJ in 2005.

I think Richard may have tried to deflect some of the attention away from Venus and Serena. Perhaps that is why he does not come to the matches as much anymore. But I believe the media treatment of him is important to examine, because much of it has been dismissive toward him.

Again, thanks for your input. This is definitely an issue that will not be going away. I look forward to yours and other's future commentary.

Nancy

Mallory S. said...

Hi Dr. Spencer,

I really like your recent blog. You brought a terrible event to the public eye, and if not for your blog, I would never have been blind to the racist situation at Indian Wells.

Honestly, it struck a chord with me that our society is still acting this way. Although I am both an athletic trainer and former athlete, I have not really been exposed to a racist athletic environment or had to comfort an athlete who has. I have however been exposed to my fair share of injury situations.

Injuries happen. Yes, athletic trainers and other medical professionals do their best to prevent them, but sports are largely unpredictable. Injuries can occur at any time. It truly is hard to plan for them. The biggest thing that athletic trainers are taught is how to react. We are taught to be flexible and quick on our feet.

I feel that fans need to be taught similar lessons. No athlete asks for an injury to occur, especially right before a competition. I understand that fans pay good money to see their favorite athletes perform; however, athletes are human.

When fans idolize athletes, they tend to forget that he or she can fall victim to injury. Fans also forget that they fall victim to injury too, sometimes at the worst times (before a wedding, around a holiday, etc.). Family members do not get mad or upset when an illness is announced and forces you to miss seeing them. They are disappointed, but understanding.

Fans need to be understanding. If fans get upset that a sporting event is changed as a result of injury, shouldn't they also be outraged if their favorite team loses unexpectedly? Yes, fans do get upset when their picked team loses, but the intensity of their anger is often far less.

In my opinion, the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of athletics is what makes watching them so exciting. Leave the racism at home. Serena and Venus have taken a stand and should not be faulted for doing so.

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

Mallory,

I loved your post! Thanks for sharing this perspective about injuries. I think you are so right that fans need to have a more humanistic perspective. Unfortunately, it is often more about dollars. That is one of the things that seems to be operating in the relationship between the Williams sisters and tennis--i.e., their marketing seems to take precedence over their humanity.

For example, both sisters stepped back from the tour at the end of 2003 after their older sister, Yetunde, was fatally shot. Here is a link to an article about Yetunde that appeared in USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/tennis/2003-09-14-williams-sister_x.htm
Sadly, many in the mainstream media were quite critical of Venus and Serena for not playing a bigger role on tour following the 2003 season. Yet, they were less critical of players like Justine Henin and others who missed tournaments for a variety of reasons.

It was not until several years later that either of the Williams sisters spoke publicly about their sisters' death. In 2008, Serena dedicated her victory in the U.S. Open to her older sister Yetunde (see: http://www.vanguardngr.com/content/view/18342/136/)
This was one of the few times that either sister spoke in public about how difficult it was for them to deal with Yetunde's death. Being criticized by many in the press had to intensify their grief.

In any case, as you can see, Indian wells was not the only trial the Williams sisters have faced. That is why I think it is time for the WTA to scrutinize their responses more closely.

Thanks again for your post.

Dr. S

T or Q said...

Hi Nancy -

This is a good thread. Good commentary (thanks Earl! and to your student. I have a lot of athletic training students in my soc class, so they will appreciate that perspective). I was watching Serena's match last night and thought it was interesting how Mary Carillo was again criticizing Serena for having a life outside of tennis! She mentioned how interesting Serena's blog was in that critique, comparing it to Federer's. She said 'Roger's blog is the most boring ever. It's just tennis, tennis, tennis. That's why I love that guy.'

Of course all the talk of blogs within the context of tennis made me think of you, Nancy!

Hope you're staying warm in all this snow.

Theresa

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

Hi Theresa,

Thanks for your message about the tennis. To be honest, watching the Australian Open is killing me--with matches being played in the middle of the night and early morning classes! But I am glad to see that it looks like Serena could win the singles again. She won it the year I was there, and it was awesome to be there for the finals! I will try to post some of the photos from that match!

I did not hear Mary Carillo's comments about Federer, but it does not surprise me that she complimented him on writing about nothing but tennis. I rarely hear an announcer say anything negative about Roger. btw, I am hoping that we get to see another Federer vs. Nadal final in the men's.

Glad you are following the thread. I am sure that Mallory will appreciate your comments about her post as well. It will be interesting to have students posting to the blog. That reminds me that I need to post another follow-up on the "Road Map to Nowhere?" So thanks for the reminder!

Thanks again for the post and hope you are surviving the snow!

Nancy

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