Venus Envy

You’ve got to hand it to Richard Williams. Sure, the father of Wimbledon champ Venus Williams is, at times, abrasive and evasive. But unlike a lot of other tennis fathers, he’s never been the subject of a restraining order. And, far more than the tennis establishment gives him credit for, he’s usually right. He held Venus and Serena out of the silly USTA junior tournaments that Chris Evert keeps babbling about, allowing them instead to build games designed to do more than toast steady 12-year-olds. He’s spoken out about racism on the tour. He bragged that his daughters would be one and two in the world. (And, the WTA computer be damned, you need only look into the eyes of step-slow Lindsay Davenport and overpowered Martina Hingis to know that this has come to pass.)

His latest kick? Reminding the world that there’s more to life than tennis. His dot-com, not-com talk is mostly just that, but you’ll remember that only a few weeks ago, Venus was the subject of the tour’s cattiest whispers: “She’s injured. She’s burned out. She’s hanging out with Jennifer Capriati‘s old friends.” The reality: With Dad’s blessing, she put away her rackets, picked up her college textbooks, and took some time off from the grind of a tennis tour that doesn’t end—enough so that her ranking slipped to fifth, leading to this minefield of a Wimbledon draw. She let her body heal, her mind grow, and sacrificed a couple hundred thousand dollars in prize money for the opportunity to act like a 20-year-old for a few months. By showing that she’s got her priorities straight in a world that rewards single-minded teens hitting two-handed backhands, Richard Williams’s oldest daughter has done the legacy of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe proud in more ways than one.

The Soccer Wars

So was race involved in last week’s vote by the FIFA executive committee to award the 2006 World Cup to Germany over South Africa? The 12-11 vote, with one baffling abstention by the Oceania representative, Charles Dempsey of New Zealand, was portrayed in sparse U.S. press coverage as a triumph of racial bias (“FIFA blows chance to give Africa its first World Cup,” was the AP’s headline for the story). But while there’s little doubt it must have played some role, the implications go deeper than that. For example, what happens to Brazil? It had agreed to give up its 2006 bid to support South Africa in last week’s vote in exchange for African support for Brazil’s 2010 bid. But now, with South Africa almost guaranteed the tournament in 2010, how do the Brazilians feel about waiting till 2014? And what of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who won the world’s most powerful sports job by actively courting African delegates with the promise of the 2006 tourney? He failed to deliver (he would’ve cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of South Africa had Dempsey not abstained), and many African football execs are angry. Should Blatter be unseated at the next FIFA election in 2002, that would open the way for European soccer supremo Lennart Johansson, who only three years ago had to apologize for using the term “darkies.” Meanwhile, Dempsey was forced to resign from his Oceania post, still intimating that European soccer bigs were “pressurizing” him, even threatening his family, to withhold his vote and claiming that none other than Nelson Mandela had given him the OK to do what he had to do. And as for African soccer and the concerns about violence, stadium safety, and security that were the main reasons cited by most delegates who were reluctant to give it the World Cup? On Sunday, 13 people were killed in a stampede at the national stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, when police fired tear gas into the crowd of 60,000 at a Zimbabwe–South Africa qualifier for the 2002 World Cup. No such deadly police incompetence has ever taken place at a match in South Africa, and whether it would at the World Cup finals is an open question—and one that won’t be answered, thanks to last week’s vote, for at least another 10 years.

Equal Bets for Equal Work

Despite all the advances in women’s sports over the past decade, one dubious measure of credibility has yet to be fully realized—the posting of betting odds in the tabloids, specifically on basketball, easily the most visible of women’s pro sports. But this may soon change, as America’s Line plans to add WNBA point spreads to their summer menus. “We’re going to start sending it out shortly,” says Benjamin Lee Eckstein, who helps set odds for the syndicated column. “For the information factor, we wanted to let them get through part of their season.”

“Information” (read: media coverage) plays a large role in who makes it to the big boards. “Aside from the NCAA finals,” says Vegas radio host Larry Grossman (of You Can Bet on It!), “women’s basketball is still an unknown quantity, and one thing bookmakers and sports bettors hate is the unknown.” But according to Joe Lupo, who runs the sports book at Sin City’s Stardust Casino, it’s not all dark. “Thanks to television coverage, name recognition, and major-market teams,” says Lupo, “we’re getting increased play,” adding that there’s a $500-per-wager house limit, since with less “history” the WNBA lines “aren’t hardly as accurate as NFL football.”

If, out of $2.5 billion bet legally nationwide on sports in 1999, WNBA sports action remains genomic in scope, the reason is simple, claims John Harper of Las Vegas Sports Consultants. “The large percentage of bettors are male,” says Harper. “The WNBA targets women, women athletes, and kids. You won’t see a lot of sports bettors from that group.”

Maybe not for long. Obviously, we’re a bona fide gambling society. Where is it written that sports betting comes from an exclusively male gene?

Blinded by the Light

Anyone who listens to Mets games on WFAN has no doubt heard countless repetitions of the commercial in which Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen shills for the New Jersey Eye Center’s laser eye surgery. In the latter part of the ad, Cohen explains that the NJEC is now featuring something called the “flying spot laser,” which incorporates the “radar tracking system used in the Strategic Defense Initiative,” i.e., Star Wars. Given that the SDI’s missile-tracking performance has fared worse and worse in each successive test, shouldn’t someone really give Cohen a new script?

Contributors: Allen St. John, Mark Winopol, John Stravinsky, Paul Lukas

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman