‘C’mon, Pete, don’t let a racist win,’ shouted a lone voice from the cheap seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Pete Sampras, preparing to serve, didn’t turn around, didn’t pay heed to this plea for justice. A few points later, Lleyton Hewitt broke Sampras’s serve yet again to clinch the second set and, for all intents and purposes, the match.
It was the single comic interlude in a sad afternoon at the National Tennis Center. The same New York crowd that made John Rocker public enemy No. 1—and jeered Donald Trump just for being Donald Trump—gave Lleyton Hewitt a logic-defying free pass, with the disproportionate cheers for the challenger making a wag wonder, “Is this the Australian Open?”
Hewitt, you will remember, even though the fans didn’t, gave the tournament its ugliest moment. In a second-round match, he threw down the race card against James Blake. After being footfaulted in the third set of his match—his shoes come within millimeters of the baseline on every delivery—Hewitt pointed at an African American linesman and then to the African American Blake. “Look at him and look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is.”
Hewitt’s accusation goes well beyond normal heat-of-the-battle stuff like calling the chair umpire “the pits of the world” or even “an abortion.” Hewitt was not only assailing the integrity of the officials—merely questioning their competence is enough to draw you a hefty fine in American team sports—but also suggesting that a racial conspiracy was at the root of a call that went against him. It’s this kind of us-against-them paranoia that fuels hate groups, and as Hewitt later strutted around, pumping his fist, while Blake retched into a courtside wastebasket, it seemed like all too short a leap from tennis whites to white hoods.
And of course, Hewitt copped to nothing. Despite being caught dead to rights on a live TV feed piped through the stadium, he sat down at a press conference and denied everything. “Had nothing to do racial, mate,” he stuttered to a reporter.
Blake was put in a lose-lose situation. If he slammed Hewitt, it would only tarnish his best effort as a pro, a run that earned him a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team next month. But by channeling Arthur Ashe and taking the high road, he helped Hewitt evade responsibility. For what it’s worth, the International Tennis Federation, which fined Michal Tabara $1000 for spitting toward Justin Gimelstob after a first-round loss, declined to take a penny from Hewitt.
And by the time the post-final press conference rolled around, Hewitt was spinning this story as if he were Marlin Fucking Fitzwater. “You know, I really have to be proud of myself for the way I’ve [blocked the incident out], under, you know, so much pressure,” he crowed. “It really shows how mentally tough I’ve been over the last couple of days.” He continued, “I copped a lot of flak for it. I knew I was really innocent. That’s why I tried to block it out as much as possible and concentrate on my tennis.”
Tennis? The less said about it the better. On the sport’s biggest stage, Hewitt and Sampras played a match that belonged in Central Park.
In a slovenly first set, Sampras hit a backhand into the backstop on the fly—no mean feat in a stadium as cavernous as Arthur Ashe—and later fouled a 75-mile-per-hour serve back into the stands like Paul O’Neill fooled by a Pedro Martinez slider. Hewitt won ugly, and Sampras lost uglier.
After the match, Sampras was as delusional as Hewitt, equating Hewitt’s so-so performance with Marat Safin’s total domination of Sampras in last year’s final. If Sampras is in denial too, cut him some slack. Deep down, he had to realize that after beating the last three champions—Pat Rafter, Andre Agassi, and Safin—he had just blown his last, best chance at winning a Slam.
As for Hewitt, let’s remember that, indeed, if it weren’t for a little help from another chair umpire last Thursday night, it might have been Andy Roddick dismantling Sampras on Sunday. After a very questionable overrule of a non-call on the far sideline, Roddick dropped a vintage-McEnroe F-bomb on the umpire, his veins bulging as he wondered rhetorically, “Are you an absolute moron?” To his credit, he didn’t implicate Hewitt in the conspiracy, and with Roddick terminally rattled, the Australian punk was happy to take the call, the meltdown, the win, and ultimately the tournament.
Racism, paranoia, and sloppy tennis dominated the first half of tennis’s biggest weekend as well. Only minutes before the women’s final, Chris Evert tried to jazz up the crowd at the Tennis magazine hospitality tent. “Who’s going to win tonight?” she exhorted. “Serena?” A smattering of polite applause. “Venus?” A larger smattering of polite applause. “Richard,” quipped someone at my table.
Indeed, even though he wasn’t there, it seemed to be Richard Williams’s world—on Friday he was spotted wearing a Reebok T-shirt bearing his own image—and the rest of us were just living in it. For years he had talked up the inevitability of an all-Williams final, and now it was about to come to pass. “I’m proud of my daughters,” he said, beaming outside the gate on Friday morning. “I’m not just proud of their tennis. I’m proud of their education, of their language.”
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.”