Winning Ugly

What a Racket When the U.S. Open Champion Turns Out to Be a Loser

On Saturday, the game's biggest power broker was conspicuously absent from the National Tennis Center. He may (or may not) have skipped town, claiming he didn't want to watch his daughters beat each other up.

The all-Williams final should have been tennis's ultimate feel-good moment. Two sisters, products not of a $50,000-a-year tennis academy, but of a public court in Compton with their dad feeding them millions of tennis balls from a shopping cart. No restraining orders, no arrests. Two beautiful young former champions, each smart and funny and well-spoken (at least after a win). And a big-sister/little-sister story line with universal appeal—Shakespeare built dramas on far less.

But the backstory was darker: Martina Hingis's foot-in-mouth quote in Time, fans heckling Serena with the N-word after she won at Indian Wells. And in that spirit, CBS flashed a National Enquirer cover during the match that suggested their Wimbledon semi last year was fixed. The usually on-target Mary Carillo noted a drop in Venus's level of play in the middle of the second set, and said, "This is why people have been suspicious of the matches between these two." Sure, the tennis was spotty, but it was no worse than the Venus-Jennifer Capriati semi, which yielded 25 more unforced errors in the same number of games.

These accusations are more serious than Hewitt's. This is convene-the-grand-jury, Eight Men Out stuff—and the fact that CBS would lend credence to this conspiracy theory is astonishing.

The take-home message from the first Open of the new millennium: Get used to it—the matchup and the controversy. Women's tennis is on the verge of becoming a first-name sport, with Williams-vs.-Williams finals destined to become the rule rather than the exception. Over the fortnight, one or the other of Richard's daughters beat every major rival—Hingis, Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, and Kim Clijsters—dropping only a single set.

Winning matches is one thing, but winning respect is another. In the early stages of Venus's masterfully strategic win over Capriati, the pro-Jenny crowd erupted over a bad call. "Booooo," they continued as Venus adjusted her visor and made her way back to her chair. Funny how that chorus of jeers—half for the linesman, half for the, um, situation—was far louder than anything the men's champion had to endure.

While you can fool the Flushing Meadows scenemakers, you can't fool the man in the street. "Can you believe what happened to Sampras?" said Desmond on Eighth Avenue, after spying the racket poking out of my bag. "He was terrible," he said with a Caribbean accent.

And Hewitt? "Can you believe I used to like him?" he said as the vendor applied mustard to my pretzel. "I liked the way he'd fight." When I told him about that lone wisecrack from the upper deck, he laughed so hard he almost collapsed onto the hood of a cab. But then he became serious and shook his head. "He just can't come right out and say he's wrong?"

"I'm glad I didn't bet on Sampras. I would have lost money," Desmond added. "I made some money on Jennifer. I made some money on Hingis. But the men—you just can't trust them."

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