Friday, March 13, 2015

BNP PARIBAS OPEN AND TENNIS MEDIA

by Karen 




I have had Tennis Channel for going on 9 years now. I have ESPN for a lot longer.  As far as I can tell, I have been a serious tennis fan for going on 20 years now.  Frankly ever since I first heard about the Williams Sisters and the fact that their braids were done by someone with Jamaican roots. 

Since that time I have come to love and admire a great many other players, but my first love has always been the Williams Sisters.

When the 2001 incident happened at Indian Wells (the “Incident”), I did not know about it.  I read about it but seeing as I lived in a country where access to these matches were never shown at a time when I could watch, I missed the episode entirely.  In any event, it was always the Sony Open that was viewed by myself and many others who lived in the Caribbean.  Indian Wells always seemed so far away and frankly it was not as prestigious as the Miami event.

When I got into serious tennis watching and blogging the Incident became one that was talked about but only in the context of the fact that the Williams Sisters did not play the event.  At the time if you wanted to see tennis matches that you hear people on places like Tennis Forum or Pete Bodo’s Tennis World you had to go to the Daily Motion site.  Downloading a grainy video of the Incident on Daily Motion back in those days did not help as internet speeds are not what they are now and frankly, I had no clue how to use the internet.  Fast forward and not only am I much more proficient at using the internet, but with the advent of YouTube there are more and more videos available of historic tennis matches, including the 2001 match. 

A few years ago I finally sat down and watched the match in its entirety.  Funnily enough I think the broadcast that is currently on YouTube is a delayed broadcast on CBS (goes to show how unimportant that tournament really was).  I was shocked at what I witnessed.  It is hard enough when someone tells you about an incident.  To experience that incident with your own two eyes really brings it into focus.  Remember that saying “walk a mile in my shoes?”.

When the WTA Tour brought in the Roadmap in 2009 it mandated 4 Premier Mandatory tournaments.  As the name suggests, these 4 tournaments had to be played by every played ranked in the top 10 on the WTA Tour (barring injury).  Prior to the Roadmap coming into play neither Venus or Serena Williams had played the Indian Wells tournament since the Incident.  Every year writers would either rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of the Williams Sisters for not playing the event with calls for the WTA to sanction the Williams Sisters, or there were other cooler heads who felt that the Williams Sisters should continue to stand by their beliefs.  Fans were also divided about whether the women should play the event or not.

As the years passed and the Indian Wells tournament became bigger and bigger, the absence of the Williams Sisters was glaring.  You could not help but think that the tournament lost a little bit of its luster each year, especially when the Miami tournament would shout from the rooftops that they had the No. 1 women’s player in the field, while the BNP Paribas Open (as it is now called) did not.

One thing that has always shocked me was the fact that during all of the tournament interviews during and after the tournament was the fact that no journalist on site ever seemed to ask the question as to the continued absence of the Williams Sisters.  Fellow players were never asked that question and no one had an opinion as to how the tournament was affected, if any, with the continued absence of both Williams Sisters.

Fast forward to 2015 and as everyone now knows Serena Williams is returning to the BNP Paribas Open.  It has been a long time and again there are mixed views about her return.  As of the date of this writing, Venus Williams will not be playing the event.  It remains to be seen whether Richard Williams and Oracene Price or other members of the Williams Family will attend the event (update word is that Oracene is in Indian Wells with Serena).

One of the reasons why I am writing this piece is because of the hypocrisy (maybe too strong a word) or downright cowardice of tennis media.  While listening to a recent podcast, I learned about the rules that have been set in place by the tournament which dissuades journalists from mentioning the Williams Sisters and their participation (or lack of participation) in the tournament.  As I have opined elsewhere, it is all well and good to comply with the directives of a tournament, but how seriously would the event have suffered if journalists were allowed the option of asking fellow players their views on Serena and Venus’ absence from the tournament?  Frankly speaking after 14 years, the story would write itself.  Tennis players are not known for giving the most captivating interviews and separate and apart from a few players who are outspoken, I doubt journalists would get much in the way of a sound bite from them.  However, I was disappointed that journalists capitulated so readily to the tournament on an issue that is of such great significance and importance. 

I am conflicted about Serena’s return to the BNP Paribas Open.  On the one hand I am glad that she is going to be a part of the line up and that fans of the women’s game and fans of Serena will finally get to see her play her home tournament once again.  On the other hand I am afraid if once she steps on the court there will be some in the stands who will be of the view that they should heckle and boo.  I sincerely hope that the majority of the fans who are there will point him out in much the same way as the fans in Miami did to this guy in 2007.  At her press conference Serena intimated that she felt much the same way as I did.  I can't imagine how she is trying to calm herself prior to taking the court for her first round match.  

Now that the tournament has officially started, the tennis media have been all over themselves in doing think pieces regarding Serena's return.  I have to confess that I am yet to read an article that addresses one aspect of that day and the events surrounding the Incident that actually looks at how the tournament and the organisers behaved at that time. 

Many will recall that Venus has always insisted that she had given due notice long before the scheduled match that she would not be playing due to tendinitis in her knee.  In none of the articles that I have seen since then has anyone actually addressed this issue.  Frankly, the more I read about the Incident, the more it seems as if Venus withdrew mere minutes before the match was scheduled to take place, which then invited the vitriol that was spewed against the Williams Family. 

In one article that I have read the Williams Family seemed to be blamed for the Incident and nowhere has the tournament taken responsibility for the role in one of, if not the biggest disgrace that has ever happened in tennis. 

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle took over as the owner of the BNP Paribas Open in or around 2009. If this article is to be believed, Mr. Ellison made no attempt to reach out to the Williams Family and have them return to Indian Wells.  It would seem from reading Mr. Bryant's article that it was Serena, via the WTA Tour who first reached out to the tournament and indicated her willingness to return to Indian Wells.  A reading of what transpired to have Serena back playing Indian Wells makes for very depressing reading.  

I completely understand the story of forgiveness, but one would have hoped that the owners and organisers of the so-called "Fifth Slam" would have taken the lead in ensuring that Serena (and frankly Venus Williams) were invited to participate in the BNP Paribas Open. 

For years we have been told how wonderful the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is.  I know.  We get it.  There is no need for commentators, players, fans and everyone and their mother to keep shouting it from the rooftops.  Enough already.  The fact that it is beautiful does not belie what happened there in 2001.  As with most things in nature that are beautiful, they usually hide a pretty deadly poison.  

Serena Williams plays her first match in 14 years at the BNP Paribas Open tonight at 7:00 p.m. local time (9:00 EST) against Monica Nicolescu.  I am hoping that just as there were fellow tennis players in the stands for Mardy Fish's return, I am hoping that there are fellow tennis players in the stands supporting Serena Williams' return.  I am not holding my breath for this one.  

Finally, after all this time the players are being asked their views on Serena's return to the BNP Paribas Open.  I guess better late than never.  However, some people should never be asked to opine on issues on which they have no knowledge and/or experience.  Eugenie Bouchard's comment borders on someone from the movie Clueless would have said.  She is reported to have said "the past is the past".  She also indicated that she thought "twirl gate" was overblown.  I think Bouchard has missed the point on both issues.  In the case of the 2001 Incident, the past is really not the past.  If it was, then we would have learned nothing from what happened in 2001.  In terms of twirl gate, if but for the fact that many tennis fans did not raise a hue and cry about the sexism that permeates tennis commentary, you Ms. Bouchard would never have been able to say that being asked to "twirl" was overblown.  

It is hard when today's players have no idea how much they have benefitted from the fight that others have undertaken in the past just so that they can dismiss important events in tennis history as "the past is the past" and that something as offensive as being asked to "twirl" to show off your outfit is not sexist.  As a paralegal with a law firm, if I came to work one morning and was told that I should twirl so that the men in the office could look at my outfit, I can tell you that there would be a harassment suit filed.  Clearly, some athletes are of the view that because they are athletes different rules apply to them and the way they are treated.  Anyway ... moving on. 

Finally, I note that I may have to revisit the same old issue of court assignments.  On Days 1 and 2 when it was only women's matches that were being played, the women took centre stage.  Today however, we are back to shoving the women onto the outside courts (read non-tv).  Of the 18 matches scheduled today on tennis tv, only 8 women's matches will be shown. I would think that in the spirit of equality the 4 tv courts could have been divided equally allowing for 9 men's and women's matches to be shown.  But that is just me. 

As it is Lent I won't be able to raise a glass of wine or sip my beer during Serena's match tonight but I will be cheering and fist pumping after every shot and rooting her on from my living room.  I know without a shadow of a doubt that there are many others who will be doing the same.   







1 comment:

Margaret McAleer said...

I too was in two minds with Serena's return to Indian Wells,though one could see Serena had other things going on in her mind when she played her first match in 14 years,well done Serena under the circumstances,happy to see the crowd go nuts when she won