Thomas Boswell

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A Big Day for Tennis Turns Small

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page D1

NEW YORK ó What on earth is the problem with tennis? Just when you try to give your heart to Venus, and her game, it just wonít let you. Arthur, theyíve named Ashe Stadium here after you. But everybody hasnít gotten your message yet.

On Friday at the U.S. Open, Venus Williams and Romaniaís Irina Spirlea had a bumping incident at midcourt. Was the 6-foot-2 Williams trying to intimidate Spirlea? Was Spirlea engaging in gamespersonship herself? After the bumping, she grinned toward Romanian legend Ilie Nastase, the original Nasty.

On Saturday in an interview with the Associated Press, Williamsís father called the episode "a racial thing" and termed Spirlea "a big, white turkey." Earlier, chatting with a New York Daily News columnist, heíd used the word "mules" to describe women players here.

On Sunday, the 17-year-old Williams played gamely but lost the Open crown in straight sets, 6-0, 6-4, to 16-year-old genius Martina Hingis in what may mark the beginning of one of the great tennis rivalries.

Instead of an afternoon of athletic glory, full of anticipation about the future, tennis left its observers with a bitter taste in their mouth. Williamsí post-match press conference was a disaster. From her first words, she was rude and abrupt, almost to the point of wanting to pick a scrap with the press.

Some reporters were delighted to fall into the spirit of the fiasco, leaping at the chance to play paparazzi for a day. Was she as arrogant as rival players claim? Did she have any friends on tour? What did she think about her fatherís inflammatory remark? Would she dump her father as coach?

Williams was obliging. She took a shot at Dad. "He didnít have to bring it up." She jabbed the press. "You guys are getting overly involved." As for her fellow players snipping at her, "People are finding something to pick [on]."

What should have been a heavenly day for any 17-year-old was turned into an unpleasant session. Reporters argued with each other. One walked out in protest of the hostile questioning. A fire hose should have been turned on us.

At least Hingis survived the fray. She acknowledged that Williams had been immature when she first hit the big time. "Her first statements werenít very nice against the other players, because, you know, she said, ĎIím the best player in the worldí ... but she didnít bring the [winning] results so everyone was not very happy [with her]." Nice left jab.

But Hingis, who has a precocious sense of decorum ó or perhaps of psychological strategizing, had the polish to add, "[Williams] has changed ... She has become a much nicer person."

But tennis has certainly not become a much nicer sport. How can a sportís showcase day turn into a nightmare? It doesnít happen in a day. It takes time.

About 20 years ago, tennis and golf were almost indistinguishable in tone. If you went to the tennis championships at old Forest Hills, and the golf U.S. Open at Baltusrol, you felt like you were in almost exactly the same snooty place. Then, slowly, the two games took different paths. And that has made all the difference.

Golf chose civility. Not consciously. Thatís just how it worked out. Jack Nicklaus set a dignified, if boring, tone. So, golf remained golf. Nothing more. Simultaneously, tennis opted for controversy, personal style and cocky attitude. From Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, the sport brandished its squeaky protagonists; so the sport got the grease. Tennis became a pop happening. Golf just watched the grass grow. And enjoyed it. As always. One sport wasnít right. The other wasnít wrong. But two genteel country club sports, with similar sociological roots, diverged widely.

For quite a while it looked like tennis, with its flash, had the better idea. But what goes around comes around. Given time, tendencies run to excess.

One day you wake up and golf has Tiger Woods. Perhaps all that respect for staid good manners helped golf produce a young champion with poise, intelligence on tough subjects and enormously broad appeal. Or maybe it just happened. Perhaps Tiger is sui generis. But at least the golf subculture didnít tear down his character.

All sports develop an ethos around themselves. The NFL really does feel like a military base. Baseball could screw up a free lunch. And golf goes out of its way to make the best of things and people. For years, that cost the sport colorful headlines. Tom Watson once said, "Maybe it would be good for the game if I punched Jack Nicklaus on the 18th green." But it has its compensations.

For example, Tiger Woodsís father, Earl, utters the occasional loose-cannon quote, too. Like calling Tiger a "messiah" in Sports Illustrated. Right or wrong, the golf world ó from players to reporters to officials ó plays down such foibles. Thatís Tigerís dad; thatís not Tiger. Donít beat the guy up by using his father as a club. No troublesome quotes from Earl, no tales from inside the Woods family, were dragged up and thrown in Tigerís face after he won the Masters. It would have been bad form.

Even Fuzzy Zoellerís racist comments — made while Woods was playing the fourth round in Augusta — somehow never made it onto TV until Woods had enjoyed several days of glory. It wasnít a conspiracy of silence. Good manners won.

Right now, tennis canít get out of its own way. But everything changes. The reign of Hingis, if it lasts long enough, will have its effect. And it may be a wonderful one. She has the golden smile and the silver tongue, too. She saw the famous Venus-Irina bump. At the first changeover Sunday, Hingis practically sprinted to get to the net first, so she and Williams wouldnít cross paths at close quarters. She sensed both the problem and its solution.

"I was watching ... I was faster than her," said Hingis, smiling. "She, too, was like not making the same mistake [of taking a collision course].

"But it was funny."

Thatís what Spirlea and Williams ó and especially Richard Williams ó should have said from the first. A bump? Who cares? Itís funny ó if youíll let it be.

Unfortunately, for the time being, tennis has the reverse of a Midas touch. The game can even touch something made of pure gold ó like Williamsí first Grand Slam final against Hingis ó and turn it into lead.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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