The Revivals

by: Steve Tignor | November 12, 2006

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This week, editor Kamakshi Tandon and I are discussing Johnette Howard's book "The Rivals," about the intertwining lives and careers of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

Hi Steve,

It's inevitable that male players have less social impact than female players because tennis is by far the most high-profile women's sport, while only one of many in men's sport. But it's also more difficult for players on either tour to have that kind of wider impact now, because the kind of upheaval that was taking place in the 1960s and 1970s isn't taking place either in tennis (open tennis, the formation of the ATP, the creation of the women's tour) or in American society (the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the women's movement).

Both tennis and American society are having to make decisions about how to engage with a widening world and assess the impact of administrative decisions made over the last seven or eight years, but that's much more ill-defined and in any case, it's been a while since we've seen players take an extended political role in the sport.

Anyway, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo played a very entertaining match to cap off a good week of tennis in Madrid, so what more can you ask from them at the moment? It may not exactly be Chrissie and Martina, but it was the rivalry in the women's game this year, highlighted initially by controversy but ultimately by some pretty good matches.

As for the Williams sisters - two players who are often credited with having a wider social impact in the United States - I think it is likely that they'll be warmly received by the public if they return to their winning ways, don't you? But it's becoming clear that doing so will take more than just a sense of their manifest destiny, and emotionally at least, they've never quite been willing to make a full commitment to the sport.

Venus was apparently asked in Madrid whether tennis is her priority and replied by say that her priorities were to larger things like happiness, family, etc. while tennis was a "job." That's neither unreasonable nor new: she said the same thing at Wimbledon five years ago when asked if tennis was something she loved or just something she was very good at, replying that it was something she was very good at. Credit her for frankness, but it creates doubts about whether she'll want to make that all-out effort needed to get back to a mountaintop that's only getting more crowded. And Venus, if anything, has been the more perseverant and realistic of the two.

But all is usually forgiven if players come back older and wiser, and the Williamses can expect the same even if they're running a bit low on goodwill at the moment. The US Open last year was one of the low points - in fact, one of the most searching critiques came from Howard in a column for Newsday:

If we hadn't already seen Serena Williams shrug off the sight of one of her $40,000 diamond earrings clattering to the court during her first-round U.S. Open match on Monday with the same nonchalance she once reserved for the loss of those 10-cent beads that used to fall out of her or her sister's hair, perhaps her announcement by Wednesday that she was donating $100 for every ace she hits the rest of the year to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort wouldn't have seemed so galling. That extravagance - and the knowledge that the two aces she had Wednesday put her out all of $200 for the relief effort - made the self-congratulatory statement that "I've always considered myself a bit of philanthropist" seem even worse. Far worse than her sister Venus' trance-like admission earlier in the day that she hadn't heard about Hurricane Katrina at all.

...As the rest of the country shudders about Hurricane Katrina, the Williams sisters fed nearly every bad stereotype about rich, spoiled, self-absorbed athletes there is. You'd never know their father, Richard, hails from a Louisiana family of sharecroppers, a personal connection that you'd think might make the disaster more deeply felt.

...The reason Venus and Serena deserve to be singled out is no one has preened more about their nouveau riche status or called attention to their conspicuous consumption like the Williamses have at this year's Open, or in their vapid reality show before that... The sight of Serena - a regular on Forbes magazine's list of top-paid athletes in recent years - hailing herself as a "philanthropist" for her underwhelming hundred bucks-an-ace pledge while she was using her fingers to play with her diamond necklace was just too much to take. Especially when she suddenly noticed her reflection on the desk in front of her and began turning her head this way and that to admire the light exploding off the diamonds.

Lastly, on the Rivals, I'll finish off by saying it's nice there's a book dedicated to exploring Evert and Navratilova not just as individuals but as a rivalry, because so much of tennis is about matchups, and this is one of the great matchups - in sports, probably, given its length and breadth.


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