I was planning to hold off on addressing the Caroline Wozniacki/Serena Williams story, but then -- with a push from Whoopi Goldberg -- this "issue," such as it is, got into the vortex of social media. And then it got ugly fast.
Wozniacki stuffed towels into her top and her skirt, jokingly impersonating Williams, at a recent exhibition in Brazil. Here's the video in question.
As is always the case when race is the issue, the spectrum of opinion was wide. Even in an attempt to stake out the middle ground -- I tweeted: "We can debate 'racist.' But the optics here are awful. Can we agree on a charge of felony-grade distasteful?" -- I got it from both sides.
Wrote @Jesuis_ici: "Sorry to tell you, but this is deeper than just Serena. Many black women are upset over this. It's not just an individual case. So the attempts to diminish are offensive."
"Take a stand against [racism] Jon! You clearly favor the Danes on this," a reader e-mailed.
I hadn't even finished my smoked herring sandwich when @alexhleopold wrote: "Please stop trying to make an issue out of a total non-starter. You're better than this."
And@supertiebreak added: "Why should Caro even comment on the matter? She's friends with Serena and was just having fun. Blowing it out of proportion!"
@sluggahjells: "This is just the case of people who don't know tennis outside of just Serena and Venus and talk reckless and uninformed. Yes, because you're white, it's a different context. ... It's awkward for a white person to dismiss any notion of racism. But the fact is, they are WRONG here, and it's important for me, as a black journalist, who knows tennis, to say they are wrong. We can't have proper discussions on race with people who know nothing about the people they talk about, at all. A disservice. And it's a shame that I have to see now The View, and Whoopi, now cast that cloud of 'Is Wozniacki a racist?' A shame."
So here's where I stand: First, in no way do I think Wozniacki was being mean-spirited, much less racist. Serena was present in the arena, I'm told, and didn't flinch. Plus, the two are friends: Remember that when Serena was hospitalized with an embolism, Wozniacki was the first player to call her. There's a cultural relativism trope, too. Should Wozniacki, who grew up in Denmark, likely unaware about some of the historical connotations she was spoofing, be held accountable? And, yes, it bears mentioning that both Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have unveiled similar impersonations of Serena without causing controversy.
I heard from some of Wozniacki's confidantes and know she is a bit shell-shocked by all this. One minute she is playing around with one of her friends, trying to entertain a crowd, put the giggle in a hit-and-giggle event. The next minute she is trying to ward off an ugly set of charges. There's also an understandable frustration. We want athletes to have color (pardon the pun) and betray personality and engagement. And when they do those things, sometimes they get pounded like Manny Pacquiao.
Lack of intent, though, doesn't automatically get you off the hook. I can offend someone, even if I had no designs of doing so. The folks who were bruised by this -- who referenced slavery and other racial stereotypes -- shouldn't be dismissed or told to "lighten up" simply because Wozniacki was not acting with malice. One of you mentioned this.
The verdict here: Cut Wozniacki a break. Save the charges of "racism" for uglier incidents. Consider Serena's good-natured response. Consider the context.
As for Wozniacki, here's a tip: Save the imitations of Serena's butt and chest. Impersonate her serve and groundstrokes instead. Carry on ...
A tangent from your fantasy Homeland question (and in the past, some fantasy MMA questions). Do you think the Big Four could have become great quarterbacks if they grew up in the U.S.? Those guys could probably throw long and short with deadly accuracy and scramble, too. I bet Roger Federer would be best since the game is played on turf.-- Art Wong, Torrance, Calif.
? I'm reading a draft of a friend's sports-and-science book -- warning: I'll be plugging it hard when the time comes -- that is absolutely fascinating. One of the topics it explores: To what extent do elite athletes have the "hardware" for success and then happened to land in sport X? And to what extent are elite athletes built for sport X but happened to have the requisite athleticism?
German sports authorities, for instance, will tell you that Steffi Graf had the physique and aerobic capacity to be a gold-medal sprinter. She just happened to be steered toward tennis early, but had she chosen running instead, we would be calling her Fraulein Kick-down-the-back-stretch. Likewise, we hear again and again that Rafael Nadal could have just as easily been a pro soccer/football player. I look at Federer, on the other hand, and struggle to see him as an elite athlete in another sport (save squash.) He has all the prerequisites: speed, power, strength, agility, touch, etc., but it all seems to translate ideally to tennis.
Anyway, my fallback here is always Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both because of his physique and the fact that his brother was a Division-I quality basketball player. (And I struggle to picture Tomas Berdych or Milos Raonic lining up behind center and throwing a deep ball.)
Can we talk about Pete Sampras for a second? When he retired, he was the GOAT -- at least in my mind. Now, you hardly ever hear him mentioned. I read your column all the time, and you go months without mentioning him. And it's not just you. -- David, Florida
? I, too, feel for Sampras. He's like Mark McGwire (minus the steroids). McGwire smashed Roger Maris' home-run record, one of baseball's most hallowed marks. But he hardly had time to enjoy the achievement and reap its rewards, because a few years later, along comes Barry Bonds to take the lead. Remember, Sampras established his primacy at Wimbledon in 2000. He retired in 2003. By 2009, Federer was the new king.
With most athletes, too often the intensity of their public figure is conflated with the intensity of their achievements. Someone like Charles Barkley or John McEnroe benefits from his post-career profile. Someone like Stefan Edberg or John Stockton suffers for choosing to be more reclusive.
In Sampras' case, I suspect that if he were a bit more visible these days, you would "hear him mentioned" more often. That's just how it goes.
The suggestion to rotate the WTF surface is laughable. Would anyone suggest rotating the French Open surface? Ask Toni Nadal about that one!-- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa, Ontario
? You have an event that is built to rotate from site to site every few years. It's not unreasonable to ask the host to vary the surface as well. Some players made the tournament chiefly because of their excellence on hard courts. Others because of their aptitude on clay. Why not take this into consideration? Advocate for a two-year ranking system, and I roll my ojos. But this suggestion from the Nadal camp sounds pretty reasonable to me.
Instead of rotating surfaces for the year-end championships, wouldn't it make more sense to eliminate the clay surface from tennis altogether (or make it a separate tour)? It's like requiring NFC and AFC championship games to be played on ice. Or NBA playoff series to be played on sand. My position is that the French Open should be eliminated as a Slam. I suspect that in any given year, the final 16 at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are generally the same people. But the final 16 at the French in a given year are people never heard from at any other time of year. I say, put clay in a separate tour.-- Jim Yrkoski, Warsaw
? Jim is joking. (I hope. Maybe not. No?) To take his analogy, yes, it would be like playing an NBA playoff series on sand, provided that a significant percent of the players grew up learning the sport on sand; a full two months of the season were on sand; and if other NBA games were OK'd on grass, indoors on rubber and asphalt.
Ignoring the fact that Nadal and Federer have won the last eight French Open titles on the men's side, yes, the French tends to be the least "formful" of the majors. To which we say: So what? The lack of uniformity and standardization through the year -- the different surfaces and different seasons, with different rhythms and different players ascending -- is part of the sport's appeal.
Please tell me the story about awarding two bronze medals for Olympic tennis in 2016 is a joke. I'm all for adding a third-set tiebreak, though. We all know that Federer had no shot in the final after playing a 19-17 third set in his semi. Andy Murray owes Juan MartinDel Potro a bottle of champagne for indirectly helping him win the gold medal!-- Nancy Ng, Montreal
? Nancy is referring to this. Totally agree with her on both points. Adding a third-set tiebreaker to do away with the cartoonish 19-17 sets? Great idea. Doing away with the bronze-medal match? Ridiculous. Why wouldn't you want as many tension-filled, meaningful, something-riding-on-this matches as possible? Inasmuch as there is any logic at play here, can someone explain the rationale behind this decision?
Not sure if it was another unforced error on your part, or a framed shank, but I'm pretty sure our hats here in Charleston are made of sweetgrass, not sawgrass ...replay the point.-- Greg M. Charleston, S.C.
? Replay the point? Thanks, but go ahead and add an "unforced error" to the ledger. We meant this.
? This is going to come across as exceedingly immodest. But it will also come across as exceedingly immodest to ignore the questions. So here goes: Yes, I have a bit of a new role at the Sports Illustrated enterprise. But, no, it will not mean the death of the Mailbag. In fact, I'll still be at all the Grand Slams. Thanks for your concern. And if you have story ideas, tips, construction criticism, etc., not limited to tennis, you know where you can find me.
? Jay, Melbourne of Australia: "I hit fairly regularly down at Melbourne Park throughout the year, and well enough to notice a difference in court speeds. The new courts that have been laid for the 2013 Australian Open are definitely faster than last year. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect they will have on the tournament. Particularly as summer gets hotter here, which will only speed them up more."
? A few of you asked me to link my story on a high school football team from Michigan.
? You want Orange Bowl results? Colette Lewis is on the case.
? Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf donated $10,000 to a local toy drive.
? Annette Bremner of Oakland, Calif., notes that Roger Federer has topped 12 million likes on Facebook.
? What is former ATP CEO Adam Helfant up to, you ask?
? Novak Djokovic and donkey cheese.
? Clint Swett of Sacramento has this week's long-lost siblings: Kim Clijsters and Met Opera soprano Elina Garnanca.