NEW YORK -- She didn't have a ball or racket in hand, wasn't even near a tennis court, so it took a moment to recognize that one of the most important figures in the history of American sports had changed her game. Because
"Just because of my history, too, as the African-American," Williams said Sunday, recalling why she decided, last year, to publicly chastise the United Arab Emirates -- during the trophy ceremony in Dubai -- for barring Israeli player
She was speaking about February 2009, when the UAE denied Peer a visa to play in its women's tournament, and defending men's champ
Then in the ensuing press conference Williams called Peer "brave" and cited the inspiration of Wimbledon pioneer
This year, the UAE relented and allowed Peer's presence, and Williams beat her in a match shunted to an outside court for supposed security reasons.
"She was always on my side and always stood up," Peer said after losing to Williams in their third-round match Sunday. "Doesn't matter if it was this year or the year before when I didn't get the visa, she stood up in that final and spoke for me. When we did play over there and we play on an outside court, she was very humble. So I think she's a very -- it's hard for me to say in it in English -- but she's always very support. She always feel for me, also. She understands what I feel."
Peer said that Williams in 2009 was the only women's player who publicly "step up and spoke for me," and to do so in the Middle East cauldron itself, of course, took real courage. But for Venus to now explain the act so emotionally, within the context of her own heritage, and in New York no less, is in some ways as powerful a statement. Understand: For both Venus and younger sister Serena, race is a thermonuclear topic, one complicated by paternal loyalty, ethnic pride and devotion to their craft, and they usually refuse even the most fawning attempts by media members -- black or white -- to cast them as racial pioneers. It's as if both fear that just stating the obvious will unleash a Pandora's Box-full of raw contention -- the kind that boiled over during Venus' spectacular debut at Flushing Meadows.
It was 1997. Venus crashed through the draw and was like nothing ever seen in tennis before: Beads in her hair, incredible wheels and reach, attitude to spare.
"I'm tall. I'm black. Everything's different about me," she said during the first week. "Just face the facts."
She couldn't have been more refreshing, and the media and TV networks and the Williamses all bought into the concept that tennis could, overnight, become post-racial, could deal with black and white issues without anyone getting hurt. But by fortnight's end, the racial cocktail had blown up in everyone's face; little involving the Williams family was said or done that didn't seem suspect. Venus and Romania's
"I don't want to answer that question," she said when asked about Richard's comments that Saturday.
"Are you disagreeing with your father then?" said a reporter. "He told that the bumping was a racist incident ... the whole attitude here: Racism. Are you disagreeing with that?"
"I think with this moment in the first year in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it all represents everyone being together, everyone having a chance to play," Venus said. "So I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions about racism ... "
"Your father didn't have to comment yesterday ... "
"You didn't have to bring it up."
"Yes I did, excuse me, who brought it up?"
It was, for everyone, awful to sit through and see. Venus seemed cornered, victimized by both her dad and the sport she loved, and from that moment on rarely engaged in the topic of being black and tall and different. Nor did she push anyone to just face facts. When asked about one of her father's seemingly annual salvos on race, she would give only the most curt answers, knowing that any show of passion would cause trouble. She and the more outspoken Serena preferred to let both their skin and their success speak for themselves, opening up most freely when the topic was dresses or doubles or their favorite TV shows. It was a loss for the tour, for sports and American culture, because both sisters are smart, funny, aware and opinionated. But it was all too understandable.
Still, the sisters' feelings, though hardly as radical as Richard's, have bubbled at times to the surface. In 2000, Serena was asked after a match in Miami if she would play a tournament in South Carolina, which the NAACP was boycotting because of the confederate flag flown over the state Capitol. She knew nothing about the boycott, but -- unlike
The next year, at Indian Wells, both Richard and Venus were booed while walking to their seats to watch Serena contest the final; father and daughter declared that people in the crowd spewed racial epithets, and the sisters haven't played there since. After her win at the '09 Australian Open, Serena declared she'd be competing in all the mandatory tour events that year. Asked if that included Indian Wells, she became more specific. "Non-racist mandatories," she said. Some contend that Richard and Venus exaggerate what they heard from the Indian Wells crowd, but there's no doubt that the Williams family believes it. Venus once said it would take "an act of God" for her to play there again.
Still, there has always been a difference between Richard's radical stance and Venus' moderating willingness to work within the tennis structure; witness her open letter to Wimbledon on equal prize money, her decision to play Dubai instead of boycotting. If the world has learned anything about Venus since her Open debut, it's that on race Richard thinks and speaks only for himself.
Last week, in a
Never mind that the USTA offered phenom
Call it progress. Now 30, Venus has long been her own woman, with her own mind, and when asked about Peer on Sunday she didn't respond with the usual blank stare when sensitive issues arise. She began by saying that Peer "would have done the same thing for me," and didn't stop, outlining her anger and hope.
"We do relate," she said of Peer, an African-American Jehovah's Witness speaking about an Israeli Jew from the other side of the globe. "Because unfortunately the world is what it is now. People don't get along for whatever reason. As professional athletes, in a way we're almost ambassadors for peace, because sports brings everyone together."
It felt, just then, a long way from 1997. Because a key part of the excitement about Venus from the start was this: That she could, like