Tag Archives: venus williams

A Sad Chapter Ends… or Does It?

By Dr. Nancy E. Spencer

On Friday, March 11, 2016, Venus Williams made her return to Indian Wells, facing Japan’s Kurumi Mara in a first-round singles match. It had been 15 years since Venus last played in the tournament, and she received a warm welcome as reflected by her broad smile in the photo below.?

In March 2001, when Venus last appeared at Indian Wells, she was scheduled to meet her sister Serena in the semifinals. As it was reported by most media sources, Venus defaulted just moments before she was to have played Serena. Tennis writer Joel Drucker (2009), wrote that “four minutes before her match against Serena, Venus pull(ed) out with tendinitis. Players usually notify officials that they will be unable to compete at least 30 minutes before a match so organizers can make contingency plans” (para. 13).

Serena related a different version of this story in her autobiography, where she wrote that during Venus’ quarter-final match against Elena Dementieva, she was dehydrated and started to cramp; she also hurt her knee and questioned whether she would be able to play in the semifinals against Serena (Williams & Paisner, 2009). On the morning of their scheduled semifinal, “Venus checked in with the tour trainer and told him she didn’t think she could play” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 64). According to the rules, the trainer needed to give his approval before Venus could officially withdraw. The trainer was then supposed to consult with the tournament director who would typically schedule another match in its place. [This part is confirmed by Drucker’s statement above].

Checking in with tour officials was an especially important step since Venus and Serena were scheduled to play on live TV (on ESPN) before a crowd that eagerly anticipated the “rare tennis treat” (2001, p. 3C) of seeing the sisters play each other for only the sixth time in their professional careers. There was clearly a lot riding on whether or not Venus and Serena played that match. Yet, according to Serena, the trainer “kept telling Venus to hold off on making any kind of final decision” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 65).

Two hours before the match was slated to begin, Venus again told officials that she would not be able to play, but still no announcement was made that she was withdrawing. It was not until five minutes before the match was to start that a tournament official finally “announced to the packed stadium that Venus was withdrawing due to injury” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 67). Needless to say, the timing of the announcement could not have been worse and fans unleashed their anger toward Venus since she was made to appear as the culprit who withdrew at the last minute.

Two days after Venus’ default in the semifinals, Serena played in the final against the Belgian Kim Clijsters. When Venus and her father entered the Stadium to watch the final, fans responded by booing vociferously. Richard Williams proclaimed that a dozen fans in the stands used racial slurs and one fan yelled that he would “skin him alive” (Smith, 2001, p. 3C). According to some sources, fans were upset not only because of the late default, but also because they had the impression that Richard, was responsible for orchestrating the outcomes of their matches. Dementieva, whom Venus defeated in the quarterfinals, had even suggested in her press conference that she thought their father Richard would decide who would win their semifinal match (Drucker, 2009). A headline in the National Enquirer also suggested that Richard ordered Serena to lose to Venus in the 2000 Wimbledon semifinals. This further fueled the impression of match-fixing.

Aside from such accusations about match-fixing, there has never been any concrete evidence to confirm that this is anything more than speculation. In fact, Bart McGuire who was then CEO of the WTA Tour, issued a statement on March 16, 2001, saying that “The tour is aware of the assertions being circulated regarding Venus and Serena Williams’ head-to-head matches. We have seen no evidence to support those assertions, and both players have denied them” (Drucker, 2009, para. 29).

On March 23, 2001, Venus addressed the role of the press in fueling the story about what happened at Indian Wells. When asked about the crowd’s response at Indian Wells, Venus said that she didn’t always understand the press, but she understood that they wanted a big story and they were “interested in selling papers” (Drucker, 2009, para. 49).Indian Wells’ Tournament Director Charlie Pasarell addressed the question posed to Venus about whether it was unfair of the crowd to respond as they did. Pasarell reported that he cringed “when all that stuff was going on,” adding that “it was unfair for the crowd to do that” (Drucker, 2009, para. 51).

At the beginning of Drucker’s (2009) article, the editor noted that “the controversy surrounding Venus and Serena Williams’ decision not to play at Indian Wells has been composed of rumors, conjecture and  confusing comments about racism and match fixing” (para. 1). While it may be difficult to make sense of all that has been reported and recorded by the press about Indian Wells over the last 15 years, what happened there in 2001 was enough to make the Williams’ sisters decide not to play in the tournament for the past 14-15 years. I vividly remember watching that match and was embarrassed by the vitriol spewed toward Venus, Serena and their father Richard. I have always understood their decision not to play at Indian Wells. While I applaud their willingness to forgive and move on, I question if that chapter is truly over if we have not fully addressed the underlying impulse for the crowd’s (mis)behavior at Indian Wells in 2001.

References

Drucker, J. (2009, March 11). What happened at Indian Wells? ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/sports/tennis/columns/story?id=3952939&columnist=drucker_joel

Rare tennis treat: Williams vs. Williams. (2001, March 15). USA Today, p. 1C.

Smith, D. (2001, March 26). Williams decries fans as racist. USA Today, p. 3C.

Williams, S., & Paisner, D. (2009). On the line. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Serena Williams: The Return to Indian Wells (Part I)

This post comes from, Bowling Green State University Sport Management Professor and Maxwell Media Watch faculty advisor, Dr. Nancy Spencer.

By Dr. Nancy Spencer

March 2, 2015

On March 13, 2001, I sat in front of my TV, eagerly awaiting the sixth match that Venus and Serena Williams were to play against one another in a professional tennis tournament. The tournament was at Indian Wells, a small affluent desert community in California that was home to many retirees from the entertainment world.

About five minutes before the match was to begin, an ESPN announcer reported that there would be no live match since Venus Williams had ‘just’ defaulted. The announcement was made in front of a packed stadium of angry fans that proceeded to boo loudly. They felt like they had been robbed.

Unlike in team sports, when a superstar fails to play on a given date, the game goes on. LeBron and Kyrie may not have played against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, but the Cleveland Cavaliers still played. There may have been different match-ups, and fans may have been disappointed that they did not get to see Kyrie and LeBron, but they still got to see a meaningful game. When someone defaults in tennis – especially in the semifinals or finals, a substitute can step in to play an exhibition match, but it is not a meaningful match.

Unfortunately, for the Williams sisters, Venus’ default coincided with published reports (albeit in the National Enquirer) that their father, Richard, may have fixed their most recent match-up in the semifinals of the 2000 Wimbledon. Venus won that match and advanced to win her first Wimbledon title. The report (in the National Enquirer) was enough to fuel speculation that perhaps Richard Williams had fixed this match. There has never been proof to substantiate that or any other allegation, even though Venus and Serena Williams have made it clear repeatedly that it was difficult for them to play one another (since they are sisters as well as best friends).

Two days later, Serena met Kim Clijsters in the finals at Indian Wells. She could not have anticipated the boisterous environment she would encounter. Even as she was introduced and again, when her father and Venus entered the stadium, fans booed vociferously.

In response, Richard raised his fist, evoking the symbolism displayed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Fans continued to boo Serena throughout the match, even when she hit winners and even at the end when she remarkably managed to come from behind to win in three sets. Later, Richard reported that he heard racist comments, including one fan who claimed that he was lucky it wasn’t 1975, or he would ‘skin him alive’ (Smith, 2001, p. 3C). The response from tournament director Charlie Pasarell was that those weren’t Indian Wells fans (Smith, 2001). That seemed a curious statement to make and certainly did not justify the unruly behavior in my book.

My immediate response to watching ‘tennis fans behaving badly’ was that racism in tennis was now visible for the whole world to see – except that this was Indian Wells, not the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, where the whole world would have been watching.

And this was before Twitter and social media would have quickly spread the news. In 2009, Serena’s autobiography was published, containing a chapter on ‘The fiery darts at Indian Wells.’ That was the first I learned Serena’s version of what happened in 2001 (in her own words) (Williams & Paisner, 2009). That was when I discovered that Venus had injured her knee during her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva.

On the morning of the semifinal, Venus checked in with the trainer, informing him that she didn’t think she would be able to play. What should have happened at that point was that an announcement of Venus’ withdrawal should have been made and another match should have been scheduled for the Stadium. But it wasn’t – for whatever reason. As a result, when Venus defaulted, it appeared that she made the call at the last minute and fans made the Williams’ sisters the scapegoats.

In her autobiography, Serena details the devastating impact of the fans’ behavior that she and Venus faced at Indian Wells in 2001. Because of that behavior, Venus and Serena determined not to return to Indian Wells since 2001… until this year… Serena is returning to Indian Wells.

Next week: Part II – Serena’s Return: How it Happened/What it Means

Mad Man At Courtside

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written Dr. Jacquelyn Cuneen, a retired Professor of Sport Management at Bowling Green State University. 

Viewers of the Emmy winning AMC series Mad Men are taken back to the 1960’s in America — an era of stringent social order when all individuals were branded by gender conformity. Even the most unattractive of males were able to swagger as if they were Frank Sinatra and even the brightest of females were expected to sashay as if they were Marilyn Monroe. Sport, of course, was the domain of males. Females were tolerated in certain “gender appropriate” activities (see Eleanor Metheny’s essay on Connotations of Movement in Sport), and women in some of those sports (e.g., golf, tennis, bowling) were starting to establish their place in athletics.

The Olympic Games provided the biggest stages for 1960’s athletes who happened to be female and some of the most visible athletes at both the summer and winter games were women from the former Soviet Bloc countries. The Soviet women were particularly dominant in track and field. They were highly trained, highly fit, very serious, and very muscular. Their appearances prompted the American media, particularly the print media, to focus more on the athletes’ bodies rather than their performances. Amid questions related to doping, chromosome testing, and sexuality, the Soviet athletes were chided for being too masculine. In other words, they were too good to be women. And, the collective Ministers of Sport from the Soviet countries were outraged over these insulting questions and accusations.

Fast-forward to half a century later when some of the best and most popular athletes in the world are skilled, strong, forceful, muscular women and the era of Mad Men is far behind — except perhaps in Russia, the principal country of the old Soviet Bloc. In October 2014, Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev appeared on his country’s late-night talk show Evening Urgant and, due either to unbelievable ignorance or a dim-witted attempt at comedy, referred to Venus and Serena Williams as The Williams brothers.

The Williams Brothers! Venus, who can walk a fashion runway to rival any Vogue model. Serena, so dazzling that she can walk on to the CBS Late Show set and render host David Letterman speechless. Brothers? What could prompt a coach to refer to such women as brothers? Could it be that, in his Mad Men mind, they are too good and too powerfully built to be women?

It is appalling that the Williams’ or any females who work to reach the top of their sport must hear such comments from their sports’ insiders. It is particularly disconcerting to hear such denigrating remarks from someone who has worked so closely with skilled women and ought to know their capabilities. A person such as Tarpischev, of all people, should know the success that comes to women who are accountable and committed to their sport and prepare themselves for excellence. He behaves like a mad man.

A final word to Shamil: Watch Mad Men and be happy you live in an era when you have accomplished women to coach. Then, get yourself off the talk show circuit, go back on court, leave social commentary to Gloria Steinem, leave comedy to Chelsea Handler, and start coaching better so some of your Russian players can come up to the Williams standard.

 

What’s So Funny About the “Williams Brothers?”

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written by Dr. Nancy Spencer Ph.D, a Sport Management Professor at Bowling Green State University.

On October 13, Shamil Tarpischev, head of the Russian Tennis Federation appeared on a Russian television show (Evening Urgant) with former player Elena Dementieva. During the interview, the host of the show asked Dementieva what it was like to play the Williams’ sisters. Before she could respond, Tarpischev interjected by calling them the ‘Williams’ brothers,’ and describing them as ‘scary.’ Merlisa Lawrence Corbett urged the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to respond to the derogatory comments. Several former players Martina Navratilova and Katrina Adams – both now members of the media – also tweeted their disapproval of Tarpischev’s remarks. Martina even called for the ouster of Tarpischev. By the end of the week, heads of both the USTA and WTA had responded to the derogatory comments.

This is clearly not the first time that sexist comments have been made about world-class female athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams or others. When former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo emerged on the tennis scene in 1999, WTA players Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis said it was like playing against a man. In 2013, after Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon Women’s Singles title, BBC announcer John Inverdale made sexist remarks, suggesting she needed to become a great tennis player since she would never be a ‘looker’ (like Maria Sharapova). And when Baylor University star Britney Griner led her team to the 2012 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship over Notre Dame, ND Coach Muffet McGraw said it was like playing against a guy, a statement she meant as a compliment.

In 1988, sport sociologist Mike Messner wrote about the dilemma facing women athletes who become so good that they are said to ‘play like men.’ Messner called it a “double-edged” sword. He explained that on one hand, it appears to be a compliment about an individual woman’s skills (indeed, Tarpischev later claimed that was what he meant). On the other hand, the implication is that because she is so good, perhaps she is not a ‘real woman’ after all.

By the end of last week, Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA announced that Tarpischev would be fined $25,000 (the maximum allowable) and suspended for a year. Allaster also sought to remove Tarpischev from his position as Chairman of the Board for the Kremlin Cup, a position he has held for 18 years. In announcing these sanctions, Allaster said that Tarpischev’s comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.” She described Venus and Serena Williams as “outstanding human beings, incredible sportswomen, and amazing role models who have done so much to inspire women and girls around the world.”

Meanwhile, Dave Haggerty, the President and CEO of the USTA called on Tarpischev to formally apologize to Venus and Serena. Less than a week after making the initial comments on Russian television, Shamil Tarpischev issued a letter of apology that is now posted on the WTA website. In it, he apologizes for the “insensitive remarks” which he understands “could be construed as discriminatory by the public.”

The USTA and WTA have not always been swift to speak out on behalf of the Williams sisters. When Richard Williams reported that he and his daughters faced racist epithets at Indian Wells in 2001, the tournament director Charlie Pasarell replied that ‘those weren’t Indian Wells people.’ To be fair, that incident occurred before Stacey Allaster or Dave Haggerty were in leadership positions with the WTA and USTA, respectively. In reporting on Serena Williams’ response to Allaster’s fine, the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg wrote that she “praised the swift and decisive action taken by the WTA.” If Serena can praise the actions of the WTA, that is good enough for me. Hopefully this incident and the swift responses of the WTA and USTA will serve to curb the thoughtless sexist (and racist) comments about female athletes at all levels.