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Serena Williams picks movie over tournament

Special to The Globe and Mail

UPDATED AT 10:14 AM EDT Saturday, Jul. 19, 2003

TORONTO -- In April, Serena Williams, the No. 1-ranked women's tennis player, asserted, "I'm an actress, I'm a model and an athlete."

In another statement, she insisted, "I prefer to put tennis player third."

What appeared to be frivolous assertions became all too real for organizers of the Rogers AT&T Cup yesterday when Williams pulled out of the event, which runs from Aug. 11 to 17, because it conflicts with her work in a movie.

Known for adding dramatic flourish to her many endeavours -- be it the risqué catsuit she wore during the 2002 U.S. Open or the long blond tresses she sported until just recently -- Williams added another twist for Rogers AT&T Cup officials. The film she is working on, a Showtime production called Street Time, will be shooting in Toronto at the same time as this year's tournament.

The Toronto tournament has total prize money of $1.325-million (U.S.) and is one of nine Tier I events -- the level below the Grand Slams -- on the women's tour, and the only one between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

According to WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott, there will be no penalties for Williams beyond the fact that she may not make her quota of five Tier I events, which would likely cost her a $12,500 (U.S.) fine plus another $40,000 (U.S.) from the year-end bonus pool.

"I can completely understand the disappointment in Canada," Scott said. "I've done a thorough review of what our rules are and that's all [the aforementioned fines] the tour can do as far as the rules are currently designed."

Scott said he did not speak to Williams yesterday, although he had talked to "plenty of her representatives."

As for sanctioning Williams under a broad category such as "Conduct detrimental to the sport," he said, "I've had some of our people look at that carefully to advise me as to what we could or couldn't do and there's nothing that this would be covered under."

He added that he plans to do a revision of tour rules.

Williams, therefore, will get away with only pocket-change fines at worst in the sport that has allowed her to become famous and earn $12.2-million (U.S.) in prize money over a seven-year pro career.

This past week, Williams, 21, appeared on ESPN to receive the ESPY award as top female athlete in 2002.

During Wimbledon, she said she would like to try more dramatic acting roles instead of the few comedic parts she has had on television.

Her previous disappearing acts -- pulling out of the 1999 event in Toronto 20 minutes before her first match with a shoulder injury, retiring in the third set of the 2000 final in Montreal against Martina Hingis with a foot problem and withdrawing on the day of her first match last year in Montreal because of a knee ailment -- combined with this year's action, will not be appreciated by Canadian tennis followers.

"I'm disappointed for our fans that Serena has changed her playing schedule," said a restrained Stacey Allaster, Rogers AT&T tournament director. "But despite that, we're really excited about the champions [including Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Venus Williams -- stomach ailments permitting -- Amélie Mauresmo and Jennifer Capriati] that are coming."
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