Venus, Serena keeping N.O. in spotlight
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
The Tuesday morning was awash in smiles and laughter, Venus and Serena Williams working the rooms at the Ronald McDonald House and the gymnasium at Clark High School like pros, the children (and grownups) gleeful at the prospect of being in the presence of the charming, most successful sister tandem in tennis history.
Early afternoon, though, the mood was a truckload more somber, the agenda for the sisters including a tour of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods.
It's all fun and games until New Orleans pokes you in the eye.
"We're always laughing and joking and having a great time," Venus said. "For us to be very silent (during the tour) . . . it really, really is a big deal."
So, too, was their visit to New Orleans.
It's pretty simple. Absolutely no one would have thought ill of the sisters if they'd sent a check to aid in the recovery in lieu of making a personal appearance. They're busy, like most celebrities, and it's not like New Orleans is a town that annually hosts a WTA Tour event, or that they have a close tie to the area. Their father, Richard Williams, was born in Shreveport, which is a lot more than a stone's throw away.
So it was a big deal that they visited the Ronald McDonald House, Clark and the ravaged neighborhoods and then, as if that wasn't enough, staged an exhibition match against each other Tuesday night at the New Orleans Arena.
Big because they didn't have to do any of that. Huge, because by doing all of it 15 months after the storm, they did their part in helping keep New Orleans in the spotlight.
"It was an awful thing to see on TV," Serena said. "It was something that you just wouldn't expect to see in the country that we live in at all. You just had to really take a step back and think.
"There are so many things that are so important, and it's important for myself and my sister, and everyone, to take out time and support. We live in Florida, and we've gone through several hurricanes. We kind of know a little bit what it's like, (but) nothing at all like the devastation that Katrina had. I think everyone took a step back, and it was like, 'This could happen to anyone, at any given time.' It's important to go out there and support people in different causes in the best way you can."
The best way is to keep the light shining in New Orleans' direction.
It's absurd that is a concern; the most devastating natural disaster in American history should remain at the forefront. But the need to continue mentioning what never should go away seems to stem from the fact that, it appears, citizens of the Gulf South are a little too upbeat for their own good.
In many cases, they laugh through their pain and strive to recover, second-lining and celebrating the return of pro sports franchises, sometimes smiling and speaking positive through clenched teeth. It appears they'd be better off wearing sackcloth, neglecting to shave or bathe and shedding buckets of tears every time the lights of a camera turn on.
But when celebrities such as the Williams sisters, who've combined to win 12 Grand Slam singles titles and to finish runner-up eight times, come to town, specifically to lend a hand because recovery is nowhere near complete, maybe it gives people cause to reconsider, despite the smiles.
"It was important to come," Venus said. "A new, hot subject comes and people forget. We just think it's important for people to remember that help is still needed."
At places such as the Stern-Atkinson Tennis Center, a New Orleans Recreation Department facility for which James Baker stumps. Baker, a club player at Stern-Atkinson -- a nine-court facility that was devastated by the storm -- served as tour guide for the Williams contingent.
"We have celebrities here to highlight the problems of the city," he said. "As much as we need housing, we also need to get back to everything that makes up a community."
The Williams sisters will do their part in helping New Orleans get back to that, while working to get back to doing what they do best -- playing Grand Slam-winning tennis.
It doesn't really matter if they accomplish the latter, though, despite the clamoring of critics who believe that by not devoting their energies solely to tennis, they've shorted the game and themselves. Please. They're well-rounded, well-adjusted and well-mannered, and if that isn't a preferable tradeoff -- for them, not us -- then maybe we should reconsider our priorities.
Whatever happens from here on in New Orleans, they're already winners.
What matters most here is that they took the time to come, and to see, and to help.
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John DeShazier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (504) 826-3410.