W Debate: Serena distracted?

Question: Will the backlash from the Rolling Stone article be a distraction for Serena Williams as she tries to defend her Wimbledon title?

Bonnie D. Ford: Bottom line answer is no, but it was a profoundly irritating week for those of us who prefer our drama to unfold on the court. There's been so little suspense in Serena's matches this season that perhaps some external controversy was inevitable.

I have to separate the two flash points in the Rolling Stone story. First: Serena's comments regarding the Steubenville rape case played to a dangerous cultural stereotype. She recognized that in her subsequent apology (and reported contact with the victim's family), but initially compounded her mistake by implying the reporter had misrepresented her. I dream of a world where top athletes, or celebrities of any kind, simply own up to what they've said, especially when they've been interviewed thousands of times and know the ground rules. I'll go a step further and say that accusing a journalist of misusing (or inventing) a quote is a professional slur akin to accusing an athlete of cheating. It's an allegation that shouldn't be made lightly.

But is all that going to be on Serena's mind when she walks out for her early-round matches? Doubt it. She knows how to ignore the tabloids when she needs to, and the Wimbledon crowds will be polite.

Jane McManus: Since you bought up her apology, it struck me that Williams (or her publicist) referred to the convicted rapists as "the accused," which gives them a benefit of the doubt they don't deserve anymore. That bothered me, but will it bother her?

Over the years Williams has been called out for her leather warm-up boots, comments about other players, boyfriends and late-night proclivities. In many of these cases, the outrage has been a whipped-up froth of nothing. In order for her to get into the second decade of a professional tennis career, Williams would have had to build up resistance to the constant nattering, from inside and outside the tennis community.

She has been the subject of so much unjustified controversy that it might be hard for her to distinguish between the cotton candy and the serious. But either way, controversy of any type doesn't seem to affect her game, as Bonnie noted. Serena is fresh off a French Open championship, which cements her place in the greatest-of-all-time discussion; and she shows no sign of slowing down.

The comments that revealed an insensitivity to a rape victim may affect some of her fans. Strategically casting doubt on their veracity might have given her some leeway in the eyes of die-hards, but not all. An icon that dismisses critics is one thing, but one who starts a sentence with "I'm not blaming the girl but …" is another. The backlash won't show up in the stands at Wimbledon, but in the bottom line with a possible loss of endorsements down the line.

Ford: As for Serena's heart-of-darkness dating reference in the Rolling Stone piece that spun off into a soap opera involving Maria Sharapova, all I can muster is, really? Was this worthy of one micro-blip of anyone's energy? I don't expect professional athletes to offer seminars on molecular biology and advanced political theory, but it's disheartening to see the dialogue between two of the world's most prominent and accomplished female athletes devolve to this level. It plays into another stereotype, and not a flattering one. (No excuses here, but would reporters have gone down this same path with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?)

I'm not sure the relationship between Williams and Sharapova could get any more abrasive than it already was. For the game's sake, it would be good if some of that contentiousness translated into tighter play in their exceptionally one-sided career series, but if they were to meet at Wimbledon, the pragmatist in me sees Serena continuing to take care of business in a matchup that is extremely favorable to her.

McManus: This is like that moment in a reality show when one of the contestants declares they aren't there to make friends but to win the $1 million, find true love or get the prizes. Sharapova and Williams don't have to be friends, even though the kind of glee their mutual dislike elicits from the tabloids is nauseating.

I'm not the first to point this out, but a fortnight of "catfight!" headlines is not the best for people who care about the tennis. Interviews on the men's side rarely focus so intensely on the relationship between two players. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi may not have been best pals during their playing days, but the media didn't feast on their dynamic. You can't blame that one on Williams. Or Sharapova.

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