Commentary

Unwarranted withdrawals detrimental to the integrity of the game

Venus and Serena have been long-standing WTA Tour fixtures. But since a much-publicized incident involving alleged racism at Indian Wells, the siblings have boycotted the event. If their self-imposed exile continues next year under a new set of rules, harsh penalties may be awaiting.

Updated: March 20, 2008, 12:02 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Serena WilliamsMIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty ImagesSerena Williams was inundated with questions about sister Venus's 2001 Indian Wells withdrawal.

INDIAN Wells, Calif. -- Strolling around the sumptuous grounds here at the Pacific Life Open, you are constantly confronted by tennis royalty. Rafael Nadal and Daniela Hantuchova, the 2007 champions, are portrayed in life-sized photographs outside the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Maria Sharapova (2006) and Roger Federer (2004-06) are also among those represented.

As former champions they enjoy an additional perk. Under the 16,100-seat stadium, tucked inside the main player locker rooms, there are two smaller chambers, where only a privileged few are permitted to pass. They are the champions' locker rooms and, for the better part of the past 10 days, they have played host to some of the sport's biggest names.

Locker No. 9 in the elite women's locker room, however, hasn't been opened for seven years now. It belongs to Serena Williams, the winner in 1999 and 2001.

Along with her sister Venus, she has boycotted the event since a series of events transpired, among them, hostilities with racial overtones, according to the Williams family.

That self-imposed exile may or may not come to an end at the 2009 Pacific Life Open. For behind the scenes, a protracted and intriguing game of chicken is playing out. It features the charged components of politics, protocol and race, a dangerous cocktail in this most genteel of sports.

Who will blink first?

Venus and Serena have been fixtures in the game for a decade now, with Venus breaking into the top 10 in 1998, followed by Serena a year later. They have won 14 Grand Slam singles titles between them, two more than Roger Federer. To this point, they have been free to pick and choose the tournaments they play, but in 2009 new rules will be in place for the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

After the four Grand Slams, the Pacific Life Open will be one of four "crown jewel" events deemed mandatory for the top women's players. While this year's tournament is mandatory for men as an ATP Masters Series event -- all of the top-ranked 45 players were in the draw -- four of the top-10 women were missing in action here: No. 1 Justin Henin, No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze, No. 7 Venus Williams and No. 9 Serena Williams.

Next year, the unprecedented penalty for an unexcused absence for a mandatory event -- a legitimate doctor's note constitutes an acceptable excuse -- will be a suspension for two subsequent events. The precise details of how those suspensions will be administered are still being negotiated, but a resolution is expected by the time Wimbledon begins in late June.

Steve Simon, the Pacific Life Open tournament director, is also the chairman of the tournament council that is currently negotiating with the players.

Let bygones be bygones

The Williams sisters have been noticeably absent from Indian Wells since Venus' infamous withdrawal prior to her match versus Serena in 2001. But Tennis.com's Tom Perrotta says enough is enough: Here are five reasons the siblings should end their holdout. Story

"We've actually met with the players twice already, once at the end of '07 and here at Indian Wells before the tournament started," Simon said last week in his ordered office. "That's what we're working through now -- when does [the suspension] apply, how does it apply?

"The application of the suspensions is one of the biggest topics under discussion. Everybody's going to take some pain for that. That's the problem with suspensions. Fans and tournaments -- everyone gets harmed. While it's not a good thing, unfortunately, the only way sometimes you can make things happen, is to take some things away from people."

The "credibility factor," as Simon calls it, is behind the WTA's initiatives. As tournaments and prize money have proliferated over the years, professional tennis has been visited recently by a plague of last-minute withdrawals blamed on injuries. Unprecedented purses -- and under-the-table appearance fees -- have created an environment in which players are encouraged to over-play. When injuries don't allow them to play in the tournaments to which they have committed, tournament directors and the fans who buy tickets are disappointed. When the withdrawals seem to be based on less-than-legitimate injuries or general fatigue, disappointment congeals into something darker.

"Withdrawals and diluted fields damaged the credibility of the tournaments," said Anne Worcester, tournament director of New Haven's Pilot Pen. "The idea was to get back to a place where the top 100 players would meet in big tournaments, with the best facilities, and the biggest television ratings and purses."

Clearly, the integrity of the game was in question.

Next month is Larry Scott's fifth anniversary as the WTA's tour chairman and CEO.

"I spent the first year just listening, then developed a strategy to give the players what they wanted," Scott told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "They wanted a healthier calendar -- more longevity and more money. The challenge was to figure out how to give players what they want and what sport needs and, at same time, create a stronger business model.

"And if players are getting what they want, they have to give, too. Getting it done wasn't so simple -- but ultimately it was a simple give-and-take from the players' and the tour's perspective."

A year ago, Scott introduced the WTA's 2009 Roadmap at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Among the major changes:

" A nine-week offseason, two more weeks than the present offseason.

" Twenty Tier I and Tier II "premiere" events, down from 26. This will include four mandatory events: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing.

" A 30 percent increase in total prize money from 2008's $70 million.

" A reduced player commitment of 10 tournaments, down from 13 in 2006 and 12 in 2007 and 2008.

For the first time, player commitment was linked to a revenue-sharing plan with the tournaments.

"Part of this deal was major changes for the players and agreeing to some unprecedented things like suspensions and some tough responsibilities for them," Lisa Grattan, chairwoman of the player council, explained at the time. "But they understand that this is what they need to do to grow the business."

The goal, according to Scott, is to raise the profile of tennis and the WTA Tour by having more well-attended, big-time events.

The worst kind of prejudice since they killed Martin Luther King. The white people at Indian Wells, what they've been wanting to say all along to us finally came out: 'Stay away from here, we don't want you here.'

--Richard Williams

"By streamlining the tournaments at the top, increasing the offseason and reducing the number of tournaments the players have to play, you're creating the best of the best," Scott said. "The mandatory tournaments are a big part of that."

For weeks, there have been rumors that a loophole, a one-time exemption, might be created for the Williams sisters to avoid an ugly showdown. If the 2001 Indian Wells tournament had never been played, it probably never would have come down to that.

It was moments before the scheduled semifinal between Venus and Serena, and the packed house at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden -- and a national television audience -- were savoring the possibilities. And then Venus (who would win in Miami two weeks later) withdrew from the match, saying the tendinitis in her knee made play impossible. She walked into her press conference without a noticeable limp and seemed offended when reporters questioned her closely about the injury.

In the final against Kim Clijsters, Serena was booed harshly and was visibly distraught. Williams won, but afterward her father, Richard, said he and Venus were targets of racist remarks during the final.

"The worst kind of prejudice since they killed Martin Luther King," Richard was quoted as saying. "The white people at Indian Wells, what they've been wanting to say all along to us finally came out: 'Stay away from here, we don't want you here.'"

Charlie Pasarell, the Pacific Life Open's tournament chairman, is sympathetic to the Williams' situation.

"What happened there was unfortunate," he said. "In my opinion, it had nothing to do with racism. The [spectators] were upset that they pulled out of the match at a late date on that Thursday night. They were upset at us as tournament directors -- I'm talking about the public. The media crucified them, and there was nothing we could do to stop it."

Simon doesn't think the Williamses will receive a one-time exemption.

"No, I don't see that," he said. "Because we're not making this rule for one person. That wouldn't be fair to the other girls who might have an issue with another tournament. Will they play here? I don't know.

"If you're going to go on the past six years, you would say, 'No, they're probably not.' But we would certainly hope they would reconsider and want to come back."

When he was playing, Pasarell didn't like it when tournament directors put him on the spot and asked if he'd be coming to their event. That's why, he said, he doesn't pressure players today. Even the Williams sisters.

"The point I'm trying to make, I'll let the event stand on its own two feet," Pasarell said. "I'll let the event sell itself in the locker room. If the players want to come, we'd love to have them come. If they don't want to come, that's OK."

From the beginning of their careers, when they bypassed the traditional junior system, the Williams sisters have always gone their own way. Their streak of independence will be tested next March. If they pass on Indian Wells without supplying a legitimate medical reason, they could conceivably be suspended from the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, which is one of their favorites -- they have won a combined six titles, and it isn't far from their home in Palm Beach Gardens.

"They had an experience here that they haven't been able to justify in their minds, or get over," Simon said. "The Roadmap wasn't built because of any one player. It was built for the future; it was built for the right reasons. We're going to have to deal with the unique situation. And the Williamses are certainly one of them -- you can't run around it."

Said Worcester, "You don't want to start off not enforcing your new rules. It's a very interesting case study to sort out."

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty ImagesVenus Williams and father Richard were greeted with a chorus of boos as they prepared to watch Serena play the Indian Wells final.
Attempts to reach representatives of both Venus and Serena for comment were unsuccessful, but the sisters' on-the-record statements to date have been emphatic.

The subject was raised at the Australian Open on Jan. 23. Venus, explaining that her short-term schedule included Doha, Memphis and Miami, was asked if she'd consider playing Indian Wells.

"You know," she said, "I think you know the answer to that one, so&"

Last March in Miami, Serena said, "I'm not going back," adding she needed to "have a sit-down and powwow with Larry Scott."

Well, did it happen?

"Yes," Scott said, "We've had some regular powwows, before and after. It's been more than a year now."

Is there any movement in the Williams' position?

Scott paused, then sighed.

"It would be premature to say that," he said. "Look, I'm hopeful we'll see them back playing at Indian Wells. They have very strong feelings about this, and I respect that. I also hope they respect what we're doing and why we're doing it.

"The system is bigger than any player, or any two sisters. The end of the story hasn't been written yet. I can't predict exactly how it will play out."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.