Tennis: The Sport of Good Grace
By Jabari Asim
Monday, September 13, 2004; 9:31 AM
Two years ago at this time, Serena Williams' biggest worry was Albrecht Strohmeyer. A 30-something German with enough cash and free time to go continent-hopping whenever he pleased, he had been obsessively pursuing the lissome athlete for seven months when he was arrested at the U.S. Open.
With Albrecht out of her hair, Serena this year ran into Mariana Alves, another European who seemed out to get her. At the U.S. Open last week, Alves, an umpire from Portugal, made a series of questionable calls that helped Jennifer Capriati defeat Williams in three close sets. To its credit, the United States Tennis Association promptly relieved Alves of her duties. "Everybody thought it was in the best interests she not be scheduled for any future matches this year," said Jim Curley, USTA tournament director.
Curley also apologized to Williams: "I told her how much she means to this tournament, how much she means to tennis, and told her how much we appreciate how classy she handled the questions from the media."
Curley's words are an admirable indication of how far the tennis establishment has come in its agonizingly slow appreciation of Serena and her sister, Venus. Not so long ago, the siblings' dominance was described in tennis circles as "not good for the game." Before that, their opponents complained that the sound of the beads in their braids posed an unfair distraction – this in a sport then dominated by screaming banshees such as Monica Seles. At Wimbledon this year, Venus was penalized by an inaccurate call during a second-round match. Given that history, Serena can be forgiven for briefly referring to a "conspiracy" designed to keep the Williams duo out of Grand Slam finals.
So blatant were the calls against Serena last Tuesday that even broadcaster John McEnroe, not known as a font of intelligent commentary, raised his voice in indignation. The audience, which was split between Capriati and Williams, also expressed its outrage.
Yanick Rice Lamb watched the controversy from the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium. "Serena was very demonstrative," she said. "She had her hand on her hip and was clearly upset."
The match followed an on-court tribute to Althea Gibson, the first black player to win the U.S. Open. She claimed the national championship in 1957, the same year that she won the first of her two Wimbledon singles crowns. She was the only black woman singles champion at the Open until 1999, when a 17-year-old from Compton, Calif., capped her stunning ascent with a first-place trophy. The young lady, of course, was Serena Williams.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Lamb. With Frances Clayton Gray, she is co-author of a new Gibson biography, "Born to Win."
"When Serena was protesting the call, I was thinking about how Althea was discouraged from doing things like that. She made a point of blocking out bad calls and what she was hearing from the crowd," said Lamb. "People tried to encourage her to carry herself a certain way and not rock the boat. She did have a fiery temper, though. I thought it was kind of remarkable that she was able to control it considering all the racism she experienced."
Gibson usually tolerated perceived unfairness with good grace. Sometimes, however, her competitive spirit would not let her keep silent. One such occasion was the 1956 Victoria Women's Tennis Championship in Australia, where she had what Lamb calls "a running war" with an umpire over foot-fault calls. She had accumulated 16 foot faults when rain delayed the match for an hour. When play resumed, she quickly racked up another five. "She kind of lost it," Lamb said. "She swatted the ball into the crowd and nearly hit the prime minister."
Serena's protest last week was considerably milder, but Gibson probably would have understood her frustration. Gibson died in September 2003 without ever meeting the Williams sisters, although she once talked to Venus on the phone. Lamb said Gibson was heartened by the sisters' triumphant rise, and she was well aware of the contributions she had made on their behalf. "One of the things she was interested in was opening the door for other people," said Lamb.
Four African-American women advanced to the third round in this year’s Open – a historical first. The door that Gibson burst through is now open so wide that not even a few horrendous calls can shut it again.
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