August 23, 2010

Article: With Serena Sidelined, Everybody Loses

It's like a surprise birthday party, and everyone is hiding behind the furniture waiting, waiting. And then the guest of honor decides not to come. It's like a baby shower, and the mother RSVPs late that she'll be out of town that day. It's like a golf tournament without Tiger Woods.

Serena Williams withdrew from the U.S. Open Friday, saying her foot injury has not recovered enough yet. And her announcement let every last bit of air out of the women's side of the tournament. "Not being able to be part of this year's U.S. Open is one of the most devastating moments of my career,'' Williams said in a statement issued by her agent. It's devastating for nearly everyone: Williams, the tournament, the networks, and most of the fans, even the ones who don't like the most divisive player on tour.

The Open will go on anyway, starting Aug. 30, and the men will have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to focus on. Andy Rodick and the American men will draw attention for a few days. And something interesting will surely happen in the women's draw, too.

Last year's biggest thrill -- before Williams' tirade at a linejudge -- came from American Melanie Oudin, who came out of nowhere to reach the quarterfinals. Maria Sharapova
suddenly is a favorite, and she offers plenty of marketability. Maybe this gives Venus Williams one more chance to win a major. Maybe Sam Stosur finally wins one, and moves near the top of the game.

But there is no way to spin this well. Williams is the measuring stick for women's tennis, and she needs to be there either to win or to be the counter-act of whoever does. If Sharapova wins, it will be remembered as the Open that Serena didn't play. Only Kim Clijsters, who beat Williams at the Open last year and went on to win the tournament, will be able to win without fans attaching an asterisk.

Williams is the drama, the attention, the style, the debate in women's tennis. Also, by far the best. That's not actually fair to the other players. It's the same knock Federer faced for his French Open title last year, when Nadal, with hurt knees, lost early. Sure, Federer won, but ...

Actually, I don't look at it that way. Tennis is a mental and physical challenge, and if you're not up to it physically, for whatever reason, then that means you weren't prepared to win. It just doesn't come across that way. This will be a major test for tennis. Without Tiger Woods in the running at majors, golf's popularity is nosediving. Tennis has been on a mild upswing in a terrible economy while other sports are faltering, but that will be tested now without the Serena Williams show.

This year alone, Williams won the Australian Open, then had questionable injuries keeping her out of minor tournaments she doesn't like to play anyway. At the French Open, she explained her feelings on the U.S. Fed Cup team by saying she didn't feel a responsibility to her country, but only to her dogs. At Wimbledon, she was outrageously pushed to an outer court on the day the Queen came to visit. She had earned her spot on Centre Court, but a snooty club overly attached to a tennis tradition that includes racism, made a big mistake. Williams made the most of it by signing autographs for kids who usually wouldn't see her. Then, she dominated the tournament.

Even her current injury has been a mystery. All her agent would say is that she hurt the top of her foot on glass in a restaurant in Germany. No details, no explanation of what the injury actually was. Williams apparently had surgery. Since then, she went into a tirade on her Twitter account when officials at the men's tournament in Los Angeles wouldn't give free tickets to her friends. It was an insult to her, as she has done so much for the game. But then she childishly tweeted that people shouldn't go to the event.

However it adds up in your head, favorably or unfavorably, Williams is The Show. And going into the Open, we were about to get a lot more drama looking back at her threatening tantrum at the linejudge last year.

"We regret that Serena Williams is unable to play the U.S. Open and wish her a speedy recovery,'' said Jim Curley, U.S. Open Tournament Director. "She will be missed, but the tournament is about the competition and the players on the court. This year's U.S. Open will be a memorable event, as it has been every year.''

I'm not sure that was the right thing to say. We'll miss her, but our event is still intact, our event will still be good, our event will still be memorable? Who is that statement about, anyway? Williams avoided suspension for her tantrum at last year's Open because tennis' governing bodies couldn't face life without her. That means, without her marketability and ticket-selling abilities. Now, they will face it anyway.

Surely, the drama won't end here. She had made herself available to play the Fed Cup finals in November. Will she be back? Last year, some team members, thinking she was faking a different injury, criticized her for choosing not to play. And what about the accident in the restaurant? It has potentially cost her millions of dollars. Is she going to sue someone? Or was it her fault? Do we really know what happened?

From here, Williams will still be The Show. But she'll miss tennis at the Open, and tennis will definitely miss her. Everybody loses.

Written by: Greg Couch - Tennis FanHouse

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