Friday, March 7, 2014

SERENA AND INDIAN WELLS

There was talk that she might play this year, 13 long years after her traumatic victory here over Kim Clijsters in 2001, and the ugly incident that has forever divided the tennis community at this time of year.  But once again it wasn't meant to be.  And despite Larry Ellison's very public determination to see this tournament take its place next to the majors in the halls of tennis heaven, neither she, nor her sister have come back.  One can have an opinion about the veracity of Richard Williams' claims of racial abuse, the tournament's shoddy treatment of the Williams sisters, or whether any player's responsibility to the game supersedes their right to ply their trade when and where they choose.  But one thing is certain:

Tennis has never really dealt with this.

And the monument to that unresolved issue, the eyesore that never fades, is the ignominious absence of Venus and Serena Williams from Indian Wells.  If it weren't for the obvious social chasm between the picturesque surroundings of this tournament, and the bleak and desperate origins of those two immense figures in women's tennis, one might consider it ironic that they have eschewed what should be their annual homecoming. But if you know the history of their last journey to what most view as a tennis paradise, it may very well be that the chasm is a natural consequence of many factors that continues to make tennis the sport least likely to produce black champions.

There have been, and continue to be both, great black players in the making, and others who have just barely missed the mark.  But when one considers what blacks have been able to achieve in other sports, one has to wonder why so few have followed in the footsteps of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah, and the Williams sisters.  When will another scale that Mount Rush(the net)more of so many great champions that look down their noses at those supplicants who gape to be their heir?  There are a lot of theories of why it hasn't happened. Everything from the cost of the game where blacks have so many more readily accessible options, to the unseen grey faces that rule the game, grim with disdain, making incidents like 2001 possible, even in this day and age.

But nobody's truly answered the question of why?  I certainly haven't.  But I suspect that until another black champion comes to Indian Wells, is received as a people's champion and goes on to win a major, it won't be.  Such is the stain that intolerance, self-absorption, collective martyrdom and entitlement can leave on a game that so many love. 

It's easy to lay the blame at the feet of Venus and Serena.  But maybe not if you can relate to the abject isolation, the ironic rejection and their resentment of the entitlement that those who would have them return so readily, display when discussing the subject.  Likewise, it's easy to lay the blame at the feet of Charlie Pasarell, and the tournament administrators, who did nothing to dispel the suspicion that led to the abusive crowd and their unseemly behavior.  But then again, you could be convinced that (1) they might have actually inflamed the enmity expressed (borne of something deeper than being gypped), and (2) it really wasn't their responsibility to do so.  

It's probably easiest to blame the faceless, collective tennisocracy of Indian Wells - those entitled few who can afford to look down their noses at one of the world's greatest athletes with impunity.  It's an unattractive reminder of those privileged Romans who felt they deserved a better display when a Christian lasted just a few minutes at the Coliseum.  But is it reasonable to hold them responsible for the false impression they were left with by the likes of Peter Graf, Stefano Capriati, Jim Pearce, and so many overbearing tennis parents before Richard Williams?  After all, his predecessors were men that, few would deny, would do anything to prostitute not only their beloved children, but the game itself, in order to manufacture a result that was to their liking alone?

Would they have reacted any differently if they knew that Richard Williams could scarcely compel either of his children to manufacture results?  After all, when he kept his daughters from competing in the same tournaments as children (precisely to avoid the appearance of impropriety) he was foiled by the insolence of Serena who would enter herself in those very tournaments under pseudonyms.  If they knew that Richard was no more able to quell the competitiveness of his daughters as children, would they harbor suspicions that he could so at that stage in their careers?  This after both had already won majors and other tournament finals, against each another?  

And what if the crowd had simply expressed their displeasure, absent of the contributions of the lunatic fringe that chose to include their racial antipathy?  Would the Williams sisters be able to forgive them their trespasses?  I would guess, they would, because after all, Serena returned to Roland Garros after the abuse she took in 2003.  

Is it realistic to be convinced that there was no undercurrent of racial ingratitude towards the sisters (as in, "We let you in here, and this is the thanks we get?") among the less fringe, but no less displeased, spectators who felt they deserved more?  I would say that is unlikely.

I suspect the real answer lies somewhere in between.  Serena has done more than enough on her own to elicit the very lack of universal enthusiasm that she bemoans.  All too often she allows the focus of this backlash to languish in the unmerited realms of the racism, misogyny, or the ubiquitous "haters", or whosoever else conveniently draws attention away from herself and her own failings, and places it on those who react to her personally, and not what she "represents".  

And I also suspect that, though we hate to admit it, there is a part of the tennis going public - not the laymen, but the entitled engine of the social elite who, to this day, drive this game to and fro - that are still just a little salty at the prospect that after all this time, Serena doesn't seem to appreciate how far they've come in welcoming her into the game.  I think they still bristle at her convenient allusions to the fact that there is still probably some overhead of their disapproval that allows Maria Sharapova (and more frustratingly, not her) to be the highest paid female athlete on the planet.

The truth is that Venus and Serena's refusal to return to Indian Wells is their god-given right. No professional, in any field of endeavor, ought to be forced to enslave themselves to a responsibility heaped on them by those that seek only to enrich themselves from their labor.  Nobody should expect them to, in any way, give up their individual right to do whatever the hell they damn well please.  It is their right to hold a grudge, and it is only they themselves that suffer the presumed (self-inflicted) consequences.  

And what of Richard Williams?  Born into the most desperate of poverty, right in the white underbelly of the Jim Crow South, literally the son of a Shreveport, Lousiana sharecropper.  He clawed his way out of that obscurity to the highest echelons of a game neither he, nor his gifted daughters, were ever meant to play, only to be laced with the most heinous racial epithets and the most undeserved vitriol at the very moment when he should have been most proud?  Can anyone blame him for not wanting to return, when so many other places would receive him in a manner befitting his, and his daughter's, achievements?

Of course Serena has done herself no favors.  Hers is a long history of self-absorption and missteps, the very picture of the kind of ego-centrism that has that special ability to make those with the best intentions and the worst, line up on the same side of the argument "against" her, as it is so wrongly and so often portrayed in the media.  Venus was no angel either, but her nature has, over the years, revealed itself to be less confrontational, more responsible. Coupled with her sister's dominance of both her and the game, and her own well documented physical struggles, the tennis world seems to have tempered its collective finger-wagging at her.  Unlike Serena, who continues to rankle, Venus' role in the Indian Wells incident, her incident with Irlina Spirlea, her theatrical outrage at Wimbledon 1998 against Jana Novotna, are faded memories that merit only 240p on youtube, such is the extent to which they have been forgotten. 

She's grown up, and in a way, somehow so have all of us, and those are now bygones.

Unlike sister Venus, I have never been a fan of Serena Williams - I find her to be too hypocritical, too self-absorbed, too contrived, and too petty.  Of course, I'm sure that this is only a facet of her personality, a facet that many of us have, and would it were also on display for the world to see, hers might not be so grating.  But she is who she is, and I simply cannot bring myself to revel in her success.  It doesn't help that she plays a style of tennis that has diminished the quality of the women's game.  While I have admiration for her accomplishments, part of me is uneasy at the prospect that despite my love of tennis' version of "Jogo Bonito", it may turn out that her career will ultimately meet my own standards of the greatest of all time.  Despite my aesthetic distaste for her game.

When she insulted Martina Hingis for a lack of formal education, I found it more than mildly ironic for someone who has a degree in nothing. When she made that hullabaloo over "The Hand", I sided with Henin, because I thought if Serena saw the hand up, she shouldn't have served, and therefore she got what she deserved:  a second serve. When, after having an overhead smash rightfully directed at her feet, she glared at Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open final of 2007 and muttered "bitch", unlike the Rod Laver Arena audience, I didn't think it was funny. When she threatened to shove a ball down a lines woman's throat at the 2009 US Open semi-final with Kim Clijsters and was defaulted only for a third code of conduct violation, I thought she got off easy.  She should have been immediately defaulted from the tournament including the doubles final, which she played and won with Venus.

I also thought it was an act of pandering when the USTA chose to give her only a suspended fine and suspension, which actually didn't expire until the week after her 2011 US Open final, where she was again cited for code of conduct violations.  The "sentence" still wasn't enforced, and I wasn't surprised that she didn't cite being black, or a woman, or the player to beat, for that bit of leniency, even though I suspect all of those contributed to it.  I thought it was absurd that she had the audacity to do to Jelena Jankovic the exact same thing Justine did to her, both at the Family Circle Cup in 2013, and again in Dubai this year.  It was just another in a long list of examples of entitlement that she has, in her view, "earned".

But despite all of these things, despite the fact that I am not her biggest fan, I 100% support her decision not to play Indian Wells in 2002 or any year since then, including 2014.  In fact, part of me would prefer it if neither she nor Venus ever played it again.  Not because I don't want to see them compete.  But if they're protesting, I think they should do just that.  Along the way, if the game's sense of entitlement should be slapped in the face again and again, so that ugly incidents like what she had to suffer, will never, ever happen again in tennis...

Well, there's no harm in that, is there?
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