|Tuesday, March 20
There's no evidence to prove the sisters tanked
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
OK, people, let's see a show of hands. How many in the room feel fairly certain that the Venus and Serena Williams act in women's professional tennis reeks of suspicion, bogus injury claims and potentially sport-damaging images of predetermined outcomes?
Great, thanks for playing. And now: How many of you have the slightest shred of actual evidence to buttress any of your suspicions, up to and including the part about sisters faking injuries to avoid playing sisters?
(Sound of crickets chirping in undeveloped farm field 20 miles away.)
Congratulations: You have just become fully qualified to put yourself in the shoes of the CEO of the Women's Tennis Association.
You want trouble? Bart McGuire can tell you about trouble. McGuire is the man upon whom falls the unhappy, unresolvable and apparently unending responsibility of attempting to separate fact from fiction in l'affair Williams.
What a colossal mess. And what stakes: Depending upon how seriously you view the situation, the Williams family constitutes either a minor but ongoing annoyance; a hugely frustrating lost opportunity to expand the WTA's popularity into previously unmarked corners; or the most mortifying threat to the sport's legitimacy since wood rackets gave way to the Wilson T-2000.
Venus Williams' sudden withdrawal from her semifinal match against Serena the other night at Indian Wells -- and I do mean sudden; the WD occurred barely 10 minutes before the match was to begin before a crowd of nearly 12,000 fans and a national cable audience on ESPN -- is but the latest episode in what has become the sorriest running distraction on the women's tour. But this one, perhaps more than any before it, truly underscored the WTA's helplessness in the face of such a situation.
To put it in a thimble, Venus pulled out due to tendinitis in her knee just before she was to take the court against her sister. This occurred despite Venus being healthy enough to have easily dispatched a top-10 player in the quarterfinals, and it occurred after Venus was visited in the locker room by a physician who agreed that she had tendinitis in the knee but never once presumed that it would keep her from playing, since (a) tennis pros routinely play through such a condition and (b) Venus never once asked about playing.
You could have seen the red flags sprouting up from two time zones away. In fact, the almost immediate reaction on the part of many people who closely follow the women's tour was that Richard Williams, the father of the dynamic athletic duo, had once again orchestrated the outcome of the match before it had a chance to be played.
And this, of course, presumes an awful lot. It presumes that Richard Williams would fix matches depending upon which of his daughters he felt needed the win most; and it presumes that Richard Williams has done it before.
That's the part about being Bart McGuire: You have no concrete evidence to support any such theory, no matter the stakes. This is tennis, after all. It's the ultimate sports honor system because it's individually motivated. Like golf, and with only a few "appearance fee" exceptions, players make their livings on the Tour by not only showing up to play but also by playing and winning. Only playing and winning brings rank and the privilege that comes with it.
But if a player -- any player, that is -- decides either to tank a match or not even bother playing it, there isn't just a heck of a lot that the Bart McGuires of the world can do. For the most part, the efficacy of something like the WTA depends almost entirely on the perceived honest effort of the athletes themselves.
McGuire clearly understands not only the implication here but also its ramification. The fact that the WTA executive was reduced to a humiliating "there's no proof" statement at Indian Wells is a firm indication of how desperate things are beginning to feel.
"We have seen no evidence to support those (match-fixing) assertions, and both players have denied them," McGuire said.
Wow, don't we all feel better? From Venus and Serena came the standard denials, much more aloof and bemused than passionate in nature. Richard Williams, for his part, delivered at least one statement that could be laughed off as complete nonsense: "I don't want to open my mouth anymore. Every time I do, all that's printed is lies. I'm scared. I'll never talk again."
I've got dibs on the "over" side of that bet, if anyone is taking. But to the people who love tennis, this is no cheap joke, no one-liner. This is about the basic integrity of the sport. And yet the entire discussion revolves around what amounts to nothing more than suspicion -- well-founded suspicion, to hear some tell it, but suspicion nontheless.
It was shocking to hear the casual tone of voice with which Russian tour player Elena Dementieva predicted, days before Venus's withdrawal at Indian Wells, that Richard Williams would decide which of the sisters was to win that semifinal match. Dementieva threw it out there as if it were simply a known fact among the tour regulars, a notion that ought to send a freezer-cold jolt up the spine of the Bart McGuires of the operation.
Then again, a Defcon-1 alarm ringing through all of McGuire's senses won't get him, or the WTA, an inch closer to any actual resolution. That's the problem in a box. The thing is, the viability of the tour might depend to a great extent on it finding a resolution somewhere in there anyway.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, which has a Web site at http://www.sacbee.com/.