By S.L. Price
September 07, 2010

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 Venus Williams, tennis player, wasn't talking about dogs or fashion; Venus Williams wasn't responding to the latest nonsense about her sister's foot or her father's mouth. No, she was talking about race now, about fighting hatred, about doing right when the easy choice is to do nothing. We've grown too used to the rich and famous using their clout only to sell products. You had to look around the room, and remember, to see that a long-ago promise was being realized at last.

"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 Shahar Peer from their tournament. "My parents both came from the South in the '40s and '50s and just -- you know, it was an outrage, really. Just like: Are you serious? Can you really exclude someone? This is professional tennis in 2010. We're all athletes here. We're not politicians or anything like that. So really, the feeling inside of me was just one of almost rage and discontent. Like: Is this for real?"

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 Andy Roddick earned plaudits for pulling out of the men's draw in protest. Williams, in contrast, decided to play and took heat for that and won, but at the moment of truth -- before Arab royalty and plenty of others who agreed with Peer's absence -- she took the microphone during the trophy presentation and essentially called out the tournament and nation, called it, "a shame that one of our players couldn't be here."

Then in the ensuing press conference Williams called Peer "brave" and cited the inspiration of Wimbledon pioneer Althea Gibson and said that the situation, "made me think of all the people who gave something for me to be here. I am not here to rock the boat or upset anyone -- I'm just here to try to do what's right."

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 Irina Spirlea bumped into each other on a changeover during their semifinal showdown, and Spirlea grinned about it and later postured, "she thinks she's the ----ing Venus Williams!" Venus' dad, Richard, then called Spirlea a "big tall white turkey" and described in an interview racial incidents his family had experienced on tour. Venus watched her post-final press conference in the new Arthur Ashe Stadium -- what should have been a star-is-born celebration -- deteriorate into chaos.

"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 Tiger Woods, who backed away from the controversy stating he was a golfer, not a politician -- said instantly, "I'm not going to support anything that's putting down my race," and didn't play.

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 column in The New York Times, Richard leveled another racial broadside at the pro tennis tour, saying that some unnamed tennis authorities, scared that blacks will "take over tennis like they did football and basketball and baseball," don't want another Venus or Serena to emerge. "Institutions that could help blacks refuse," he said. "I think they drive blacks away from tennis."

Never mind that the USTA offered phenom Donald Young all manner of training camps, practice partners and coaching, or that, with U.S. tennis facing a talent drought, promoters, agents and marketers would throw parades if a great black player were to emerge, or that blacks aren't even close to dominating baseball. Perhaps the most telling thing about Richard's comments is that they created no stir at Flushing Meadows. Venus, who will play in today's quarterfinal against Francesca Schiavone, has yet to be asked one question about her dad's words.

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 Arthur Ashe, be the start of something new for an oft-hidebound, elitist and monochromatic sport, a bridge into the game for the poor and minorities, someone who would stand up for those who are being held back. Much of that feeling was lost when she was 17; after New York no one, especially Venus, wanted to talk much about her potential impact beyond tennis. But she seems ready now, comfortable even. So maybe, at last, we can.

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