Monday, August 31, 2009

I just finished reading the chapter about Indian Wells in Serena Williams’ new book, On the line. I heard about the book from Wayne Coffey, a New York Daily News journalist who wrote an article about the Williams sisters on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Serena’s first Grand Slam singles title (i.e., she won at the 1999 U.S. Open). Coffey’s article appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News, on the eve of the 2009 U.S. Open.
In Serena’s chapter entitled “The fiery darts of Indian Wells,” she shares her perspective on what happened in the 2001 tourney after Venus defaulted before their semi-final match. For one thing, Serena says that Venus knew after her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva that she was hurting and might not be able to play in the semifinals. Following the established procedure for tournaments, Venus made an appointment with the trainer, and told her that she did not think she should play. The trainer was supposed to pass that information along to the WTA office, so an announcement could be made. As the time for the match drew closer, Venus wondered why an announcement had not yet been made. For whatever reason, either the trainer and/or tour officials must have waited until shortly before the match was supposed to have begun to convey the information about Venus defaulting. As it turned out, Serena bore the brunt of the angry crowd when she played in the Finals against Kim Clijsters two days later.

Serena wrote something that I thought was quite poignant, when she considered what could have been done, in retrospect, once the booing began during the final. This is what she wrote:

“I look back now and think something could have been done about this situation before it got out of hand. Some tournament official could have gotten on the loudspeaker and explained to the fans that Venus had been legitimately hurt, that I had nothing to do with her withdrawal, that every effort had been made to cancel that semifinal match in a more timely manner. Some effort could have been made to quiet the crowd. But no one did anything. The WTA people just sat there with their mouths open as all these people beat up on a little girl. The Indian Wells people just sat there with their mouths open, too. Everyone was in shock, I think—but that’s no excuse” (Williams, & Paisner, 2009, p. 81).
That was exactly how I felt at the time—I remember wondering why someone did not step in and make an announcement... why someone didn’t say that this behavior was totally inappropriate and uncalled for... I remember (when I was watching the match on television) that one of the commentators (Pam Shriver or Mary Joe Fernandez) said she had heard that something might happen during the final, since people were still really upset about Venus’ semifinal withdrawal. So, if that was the case, why didn’t tournament officials anticipate the possibility and take steps to be pro-active? That is something I never understood.

Here is a Youtube clip of the beginning of the finals between Serena and Kim Clijsters, showing what happened when Richard and Venus came down the steps to their seats and the fans continued to boo. Whenever I show this clip in class, students are horrified! Most indicate that they fully understand why Venus and Serena continue to boycott the Indian Wells Tournament. So, why do the WTA officials still not “get it?”

Serena explained that the reason she and Venus have continued to boycott Indian Wells, is because she believes “it’s instructive, because I think we need to call out bad behavior, especially when it cuts across racial lines and is directed at our children” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 82). She says it is about holding people accountable for their actions—I agree with Serena 100%. I have felt this way since the moment I saw what happened during that finals match. And I am even more convinced of that now, especially after reading this chapter by Serena! Even though Indian Wells has become a mandatory tournament (i.e., there are consequences for a player who does not play), Serena and Venus are adamant about not playing. According to Serena:

“I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars. I will not play there again. They can also suspend you from the next tournament, but my feeling is that if I go back to Indian Wells I’ll send the wrong message to little black girls who for whatever reason have chosen to look up to me… if they fine me, they fine me. If they suspend me, they suspend me” (p. 82).

Serena says she does not know whether their boycott will make a difference in the end—i.e., whether her stand will make a difference in the "ongoing fight for inequality." But as she points out, “you don’t get past racial tension by forgetting about it. You don’t just ignore this kind of prejudice and hope it goes away” (p. 83). She concludes that you make such stands “because you wouldn’t be here if someone didn’t make them for you, long before you were even born” (p. 83).

I believe it does—and will—make a difference that Venus and Serena continue to take a stand against the “bad behavior” at Indian Wells. And I also believe it is important for others to stand with them!
I do.
Will you?


Peeds9 said...

Whats your opinion with the actions of S.W.?

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

It's interesting that you should ask, since we ending up talking about this in class. I just read an article by Dave Zirin (whose blog is posted on our Blackboard site), and he suggests there is a 'double standard' toward Serena. Like Zirin, I do not condone what she did in speaking to the linesperson as she did, but I also wonder why so little was made of Roger Federer's 'words' to the Chair Umpire in his match? Here is the link to Dave Zirin's article in The Nation:

Getting back to your question, my opinion is that it was an ugly moment, not one for which Serena will want to be remembered. I still see her as one of the most mentally tough athletes I have ever watched--which is why her behavior surprised me so much. I do believe she will learn and grow from this. I still believe that the WTA needs to revisit the reasons she and Venus have boycotted Indian Wells.

Thanks for asking!

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

I should ask you: what is your opinion of what happened at the Open?

Peeds9 said...

I feel like you said it was a time in her life she will not want to remember. It was the heat of the moment she was losing and did not like that. If she was winning and she was called for a fault would she have done off? No. She is a fine person and is always a class act. Did the line judge act like a baby ? Yeah.

So I feel it was wrong what she did, but things happen in the heat of the moment.

aldaylong said...

I find it interesting that Indian Wells official or WTA officials haven't extended an invitation to the Williams sisters to mend their differences. I know that more can be taken from the situation if the two parties sit down and figure out how they can make this a teaching point, instead of submitting to their differences. I COMPLETELY agree with the boycott and have much more respect for S.W after watching the clip. Do you feel if Serena was "Steve" or "Shaun" (a male) this situation would have been more publicized than it was?

The Tennis Prof Chronicles said...

I have been following this situation for a long time and I think you raise several interesting points--have either the WTA or Indian Wells extended an invitation to discuss their differences? The former CEO of the WTA, Larry Scott, said that they had, but no progress was made. Serena's chapter does not suggest that there was any sense of comprehension on the part of the WTA or tennis administrators. From her viewpoint, they just did not seem to "get" it. That is my impression as well.

Would it have been a different case if it was a male? I am not sure. Mary Carillo says that Serena Williams is the most followed (i.e., popular) tennis player--surpassing Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, which suggests to me that there would not be much more coverage if it had happened to a male. There was an incident several years ago when Lleyton Hewitt made racist comments to/about a linesperson during a match against James Blake. That too was a smaller tournament and nothing much happened as a result. That incident was nowhere near as inflammatory as what the Williams sisters and their father faced at Indian Wells though.

One of the most interesting things to me is that the Williams sisters and Indian Wells were at one time represented by the same agent (from IMG). I am not sure if they still are, but that seemed like a clear conflict of interest!

Great questions and observations!

Sport and Gender Blog - 11:30 Class said...

Dr. Spencer,

It baffles me how the tournament director has never owned up to what went wrong on that day when Serene played in the finals. He just said thats not Indian Wells people. I firmly believe that the tournament could gain back the Williams sisters if the proper effort was made. The first thing they need to do is to give a real and sincere apology. This would involve a public statement issued by the director stating how the actions that went on in 2001 were wrong. They should also make rules at the tennis club that prohibits booing and profanity. This would help to clean up the image of the tennis club. If these two things are done, then there is a chance the Williams sister will compete again. If the tournament gained the sisters back, it would increase in popularity by a large margin. This is why it is so important to apologize and make things right.

Sport and Gender Blog - 11:30 Class said...

^ Tad Margolies

Erin Scott said...

Dr. Spencer,

I think this is a truly appalling situation. I understand that the fans really wanted to see Venus play, but if you're a real fan you should be understanding of the athlete's injury and be hoping that she gets better quickly. Also, since when is it acceptable for adults to treat a young girl like that? It's disgusting that the fans started yelling out racial slurs. I highly doubt if a white athlete did the same that any racial slurs would be yelled.

I think it's ridiculous that the fans then turned their anger on Serena. She had nothing to do with her sister's injury. This was a large group of disrespectful fans. I wonder if they look back and feel horrible for their actions, because they definitely should. I support Serena and Venus's decision to boycott. The fact that the Indian Wells officials didn't do anything to stop this behavior or apologize makes them just as guilty as the fans who participated in these actions. I think Serena is a tough athlete and how she won the match with all that negativity and how she has stood her ground on this matter proves that.

Erin Scott

Sport and Gender Blog - 11:30 Class said...

Dr. Spencer—

As a fellow tennis fan, I first would like to point out that I have very mixed emotions about the blog entry that you posted. I applaud your recognition of this incident, fully realizing that this behavior happens all across the world today. Your challenge to stand with the Williams’ sisters is very meaningful to me -- I know I do. When looking at what athletes may have to experience when they compete is sometimes tough to comprehend. These bad behaviors of racial discrimination are appalling. I believe that in no way is this acceptable for any fan to treat athletes like this. But, I put more of the blame on the officials of this tournament. The environment they work in is clearly out of control and in no way is safe. Even today, I am surprised that WTA Indian Wells officials haven’t tried to fix their mistakes and reach out the sisters. Now that being said, as a past athlete I view this incident from a couple of angles. Part of me believes in the drive to compete in any environment, to win and prove that your hard work and talent is the best. By not attending the tournament, you are letting fans and officials alike ruin your tennis game. At the same time, by the Williams’ sisters declining to play at Indian Wells and still having the ability to find success, proves more than ever of their dominance over the game of tennis. All at the same time, these “superstars” are holding to true to their values and are standing up for what is right -- some would say that is partially the true meaning of sport.

Until next time,

Alex Solis