From my column on AOL Fanhouse
MELBOURNE, Australia – Serena Williams wins Wimbledon and then the U.S. Open. She is on a roll, dominating tennis again. And then, with the Olympics coming, she says she wishes she could play for the U.S., but is being kept out.
The U.S. picks Melanie Oudin instead.
I’m imagining a future here, a very possible future. A very uncomfortable and explosive future. When you stand there and see two trains on the same track, barreling toward each other, you sort of brace yourself.
Williams, and her sister Venus, are very close to failing to meet requirements to be eligible for the 2012 London Olympics. Those requirements, though, have a lot of gray area and interpretation, and of course an appeals system.
But the rules aren’t based on the right things, anyway.
Oh, this could get ugly.
Serena Williams, who hasn’t played a tournament since Wimbledon in July of 2010, citing a foot injury that she gives conflicting explanations for, reportedly has told the USTA that she was “making herself available” to play for the U.S. Fed Cup team in April.
That might not sound like a big deal, as it is likely to be a consolation match who knows where. But if she doesn’t play, and the U.S. loses, she will be out of the 2012 Olympics in London.
At least, that’s according to the rules of the International Tennis Federation. Same goes for Venus.
We’ll see, because this is smelling like a power play, and I’m not sure the ITF or the USTA are nearly as powerful as Serena Williams.
But the rules say that to be eligible for the London Olympics in women’s tennis, a player must make herself available to compete in Fed Cup in two of the years from 2009 to 2012.
Serena and Venus have both said at different times that they are making themselves available, but then haven’t played. It happened in the Fed Cup final in 2010, when both withdrew with an injury.
At the Fed Cup final in 2009, Serena confirmed on a Tuesday that she would play. Three days later, on a Friday during the tour championship, she withdrew from Fed Cup, saying she was fatigued.
She would win the tour championship two days later.
So I asked ITF officials here at the Australian Open whether they consider either or both of the Williams sisters to have successfully made themselves available in either 2009 or 2010.
The answer: No.
That means both sisters must do it in 2011 and in 2012. Both are hurt now — Venus retired from a match at the Australian Open with an injury and Serena didn’t come at all — and are not going to play in February against Kim Clijsters and Belgium. If the U.S. loses that one — a good bet — then it plays a relegation match in April.
A loss there, and the season, and last chance to be available in 2011, is over.
That is the best guess why Serena has said she will play. Venus hasn’t announced anything yet. But it’s unsure whether Serena, who is said to still be in a surgical boot, will be ready by then.
The USTA has said that if a player makes herself available, and then withdraws because of an injury, she can still get credit for the match by showing up for the week, supporting the team, making appearances.
An ITF official said he has heard talk of the USTA saying that, but that there is nothing about it in the rules.
In any case, the USTA will have the right to appeal to the ITF’s Olympic committee to try to make a case for the Williams sisters, even if they don’t play Fed Cup.
But if Oudin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands have been playing for the U.S. in Fed Cup regularly all four years, then why shouldn’t they get the spot on the Olympic teams?
Mike Krzyzewski did insist that U.S. basketball players play on the national team first for an extended period if they wanted to be in the Olympics.
Not exactly, no. Basketball is a team game, and USA basketball was struggling by taking superstars and just placing them in the Olympics. There was no teamwork, no camaraderie.
Tennis isn’t like that, and there is nothing to be gained competitively by playing Fed Cup. Also, the tennis tour is global, and the Williams sisters — and everyone else — already represent their country everywhere they go all year long.
But most important is this: The Williams sisters have been the face of American tennis for a decade, and to leave them off the Olympic team would actually be an insult.
I’m not even sure why they have a rule requiring Fed Cup play, other than this: Fed Cup is an ITF event. Seems interesting that the ITF has set up rules that would benefit … the ITF.
The Fed Cup really just isn’t that important.
Anyway, if the Williams sisters can’t play Fed Cup, it will be interesting to see what the USTA and ITF do. There is always a question as to whether Serena’s injuries are real.
In his book, the USTA’s Patrick McEnroe wrote that he doubted Serena ever intended to play in 2009, and was only trying to gain favor from the ITF while it decided on a punishment for her profanity-laced threats at a linejudge during the U.S. Open.
The punishment, a fine, came in, and then she withdrew.
There is no such question about Venus’ injury claims.
Will that factor in?
Well, people don’t like to hear the truth on this, but there is always a racial debate involving the Williams sisters. When Oudin had her run through the U.S. Open and became an instant tennis teen sensation, at least some of that popularity was that she
was a great white hope.
Now, if a white, blonde woman is chosen over the Williams sisters, based on Fed Cup play, well, the trains are barreling down on each other.
Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch