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Courting A Cause<br />

Serena Williams By Andrea Leand<br />12/22/2001

It started with a poem. Serena Williams, upon hearing of the death of a good friend’s mother from ovarian cancer, composed the verse expressing sympathy. Her compassion did not end with a heartfelt condolence note to Puma honcho Linda Long, rather with the formation two years ago of the Players That Care Foundation.

Through this charity organization, the 20-year-old spearheaded a fancy weekend of fun in Las Vegas to help raise funds to combat the disease. A string of high-profile players, Michael Chang, Lisa Raymond and Rick Leach included, joined the tennis and golf outing to support the cause. <br />This was not an ordinary charity event, though. How many tournament directors would have longed to see Serena Williams grace their tournaments? With long blond hair cascading over her glitzy strapless top and decked in a snug black skirt and knee-high boots, a beaming Serena kicked off the festivities by arriving for the welcome party via the Venetian Hotel’s Italian-style gondola that winds through the posh palace. Fans lined up to catch the nostalgic scene of the star drifting down the indoor river serenaded by festively dressed singers. When Williams took to the microphone, she did not talk tennis. She talked about the disease. No one asked about rankings, or Venus or next year’s goals. Instead, they listened intently to Serena’s reasons for lending support.

“I’m so happy to be here, to try and help with this disease,” she said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to give back and do something for others. It’s nice winning titles, but it is a great feeling to help in this way.”

Such sentiment may be a bit too much for many to bear after surviving a tennis season where many tournaments found themselves without marquee names. After a year of begging and bullying stars to show at scheduled stops, here were a handful of prime names polished—and on time—for every meeting, cocktail party and event. They mingled, competed and even did the unthinkable—reached into their own pockets to pony up for a few auction items—all the time with relaxed smiles.

Chang emerged the ambassador extraordinaire after he took to the podium and recited an impressively long list of statistics surrounding ovarian cancer. “Twenty-three-thousand die each year from ovarian cancer,” he told those in attendance. Can you imagine, a male tennis star researching and then trumpeting a cause for a fellow female player? Many of those fans may never have seen Chang win the French Open, but they will not forget his poise and compassion for the issue.

Getting gushy, right? What’s wrong with this picture? There must be some catch, something in it for the players, some reward. After all, tennis stars are supposed to be spoiled multimillionaires who only think of themselves. Not this weekend. Participating for such a cause brought the best out in everyone—not to mention raising nearly $75,000 for the Players That Care Foundation. Players were not bickering or worrying about match times, guarantees or coaching squabbles. The pressure was off and giving back became the reward, the ultimate satisfaction. In fact, the cause struck a chord—a direction the tours might consider.

The tours now realize that money does not always talk these days with stars already financially secure for life. What better way to attract their attention, give them a worthwhile way to lend their name, than to bring back charitable venues? As the WTA searches for a tour charity to replace Special Olympics, why not find a universal cause wherein each star picks some individual charity? For example, the tour could pick cancer as its umbrella cause and encourage each top ten star to choose a subsequent charity to support. After all, who has not been affected by cancer in some way? Corina Moriariu’s battle with lymphoma revealed that everyone—even young women in tremendous physical condition—are not exempt from cancer’s grip. Unlike Special Olympics, which is primarily a U.S.-based charity, groups devoted to raising money for cancer research are positioned across the globe and coincide with the sport’s international compass. Serena Williams has already committed to helping ovarian cancer, but there are so many other aspects of the disease that could be helped through charitable events, such as breast, pediatric, Hodgkin’s, lymphoma, lung, colon, thyroid and prostate cancer.

“Becoming involved in a charity really helps players realize there is more to life than just tennis,” said Chang who has formed his own family foundation to help children. “Sometimes players get so caught up in wins and losses and traveling on tour, but helping in a charity really broadens perspective. It also makes players see that they have a platform and can contribute as much off court as on.”

It’s a win-win situation. Andre Agassi has proven this with his initiative in Las Vegas. His efforts to build a school for underprivileged kids will serve others long after his career is finished. His charitable work will broaden his legacy as a great tennis player—and humanitarian. Developing such a crusade could help create better relations between players and the tours. Players are given an incentive to attend tournaments when a charitable component is attached to the main event. It’s been awhile since competitors made regular visits to schools, hospitals or other such venues. Such efforts would not only help to promote individual events as well as a specific cause and those affected, but would give players emotional satisfaction, too, a sense that they were using their celebrity status to benefit others.

Where might fans find Nicolas Lapentti before year’s end? Try Paradise Island in the Bahamas where native Mark Knowles is hosting his own charity event. Home to many star athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Jim Courier, both the Atlantis Hotel and the Ocean Club on Paradise Island have become hot spots for all ages. Only a short jaunt from the United States, Paradise Island offers a piece of paradise close to home.

Families thrive at the Atlantis, where children delight in its height-defying waterslides and beautifully landscaped pools. Adults enjoy a slew of activities, too, including parasailing, jet skiing and snorkeling at the exquisite oceanside retreat. The Atlantis offers a wide range of restaurants and activities to compliment its first-class accommodations. When guests have enough sun, there are shows and shops in each of its different venues to keep them busy. One highlight is the indoor shark aquarium, where patrons can come nearly nose-to-nose with an eye-catching menagerie of sea life.

While Lindsay Davenport and Zina Garrison prefer the Atlantis, other stars opt for the more exclusive Ocean Club. The more sedate, elite facility allows guests to bask in complete privacy and luxury. The resort’s restaurant, Dune (Jean Georges chef), is five star, the tennis courts are well-groomed and champagne and strawberries are served every afternoon. The newly built golf course attracts many as well.

Such conditions make any charity event even more enjoyable. For Lapentti and others, it’s a great way to contribute to a charity and have some fun. Similar to Williams’ event in Las Vegas, it’s a win-win situation again. The charity, venue and participants give to the cause and receive personal satisfaction and welcome exposure.

“Sure, we look for career longevity for players,” said Octagon manager Phil de Picciotto. “Participating in such causes is a great way to get players involved in the sport in a different way. And we need to think of ways to keep players involved.”

Too bad the WTA does not have someone like Puma’s Linda Long to facilitate such a program. Long now manages Puma’s professional tennis division, particularly Serena, but has served the sport in many capacities over the years and possesses the experience, expertise and ingenuity for producing terrific end results. Yes, there are professionals out there whom the players respect. At a time when the tour’s relationship with its stars has deteriorated, it was a relief to see players responding well to Long in Las Vegas. When Long called for a private meeting prior to the press conference so players, including Serena, could gain some insight into the disease, all appeared neat and on time.

That is not to say that there are not some WTA staffers who command respect. WTA director Brenda Perry aptly assisted Long throughout the event. Her well-balanced perspective and quiet intelligence—not to mention diplomacy—created an inviting environment. Why not let Perry head a WTA charitable division, which coordinates player/charity efforts?

Incentive and will are there. Long proved it can be done. Who would have imagined two years ago that Serena Williams and Michael Chang would be trumpeting support for ovarian cancer? Long tapped into the need and desire of all parties to do something different, fun, rewarding and productive. There is more to be done. The WTA wants answers and suggestions. The obvious is staring them in the face.
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