At the time it felt dangerous. At the time, as tempers flared and snipes about the black girl’s “demeanor” or “unfriendliness” rang out, as her parents raised questions about racism on the tennis tour, the ugliness that consumed the 1997 U.S. Open seemed unstoppable. Few, if any, sporting events in America had been so charged, so flammable. Certainly no Grand Slam had ended on a more dispiriting note.
Remember? There was Venus Williams and her semifinal opponent, Irina Spirlea of Romania, colliding on a changeover because, as Spirlea later said, “She thinks she’s the f------ Venus Williams.” There was Venus’s father, Richard, responding by calling the 23-year-old Spirlea a “big, ugly, tall, white turkey,” and stating that he and his daughter had both heard opponents on tour use the n-word. There was Venus, 17 years old and alone in the interview room after losing the final to Martina Hingis, being badgered by white reporters—as a black journalist stormed out in protest—to address her father’s comments.
Witnessing all that unfold was a horror; you wished someone would step in and make it stop. Yet, 20 years later, with Venus returning to the Open as its most revered American and her sister, Serena, regarded as the greatest women’s player ever, perhaps the events of 1997 have proved oddly constructive—healthy, even. Precisely because no one would make it stop.
By “no one,” of course, I mean the forces in other sports—commissioners, owners, front-office officials, tradition-bound or timid teammates—who often quell the airing of culturally explosive issues. I mean the same forces that, lately, seem to make it impossible for quarterback Colin Kaepernick to find a job.
“All this political correctness: It doesn’t work,” says Oracene Price, the Williams sisters’ mother and then coach. “Why hold people back from saying what they really believe? It’s kind of dumb.”
In tennis, such control remains unthinkable. The sport has no singular commissioner, and with varied organizations—the ATP, WTA, ITF, as well as each Grand Slam event—representing their own interests, top players (and agents and family) wield extraordinary clout. There is no mechanism to keep someone—no matter how voluble—from turning the sport into a showcase for the most divisive topics, so long as he or she keeps winning.
“Stick to sports,” is a phrase tennis left behind decades ago. Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Renée Richards eloquently embodied, respectively, racial equality, women’s rights, human and gay rights, and the trans experience. The once-elitist game had evolved into an unlikely laboratory of cultural change, but the process was never smooth. Venus, for one, seemed stunned by the fallout from her father’s charges.
“This moment in the first year in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it all represents everyone . . . having a chance to play,” she said in that press conference before it went fully off the rails. “So I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions about racism.”
True, it would’ve been more peaceful if everyone had made nice. Ashe Stadium’s debut, and the fact that the ’97 Open began on the birthday of Althea Gibson, the first black athlete to win a Grand Slam, set up a tidy narrative about the sport’s inclusiveness. But Venus never disavowed her father’s words, and her experience that year vented real tensions; figures like Zina Garrison testified to a tour cool to those of her skin color. By fortnight’s end, tennis proved that it still had far to go.
“I’m tall, I’m black: Everything’s different about me,” Venus said during that Open. “Just face the facts.”
So as the Williams sisters climbed to dominate the tour, the issue of race never fully faded. Tennis, in other words, is much like the world; one difference, though, is that the power roles are reversed. Serena boycotted a South Carolina tournament in 2000 because the Confederate flag flew over the state capitol. Serena and Venus boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for 14 and 15 years, respectively, for what they perceived as racial hostility from the crowd. The United Arab Emirates tried blackballing Israeli Shahar Peer in 2009, when it denied her a visa to play in Dubai, only to have defending champion Andy Roddick of the U.S. boycott the tournament and Venus publicly raise the issue during the trophy ceremony.
Anger, eye-rolling: Every player’s statement had its detractors. Some want athletes to just shut up and play. But it’s no small thing that, in 2010, Peer was granted a visa and played in Dubai. As ever, the sport is better for having such issues honestly aired and argued.
How do we know?
Because this year Venus plays Flushing Meadow as she did in 1997—without Serena, who is expecting a baby any day now—making it easier to see how esteemed she has become. Much of that is due to her revitalized play. (She won her opening match on Monday, beating Slovakian qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova in three sets.) Some comes from the dignity revealed by personal trial. But part arises from the sense that, in two decades, Venus never backed down. And the cheering she hears in New York City will sound, indeed, like gratitude.