Williams Sisters in Danger of Being Left out of Olympics? Brace Yourself

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.

Same thing?

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.

Brace yourself.

Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

7 responses to “Williams Sisters in Danger of Being Left out of Olympics? Brace Yourself

  • Joe

    Good article, but there is of course the usual shade;

    “There is always a question as to whether Serena’s injuries are real.”

    There isn’t.

    People always say that, but I’d love for you to give examples of when Serena’s injuries haven’t been real. Both her, Venus and practically the whole field were clearly limping on one leg at the YEC in 2009 yet you question only the legitimacy of Serena’s injury?

    She then had her knee injury in 2010 that took her out of Miami (and everything between AO and midway through the clay season) — her favourite and most fruitful tournament outside of the slams. Meant she had to withdraw from FC.

    And then of course the glass drama. Regardless of you thinking that she needed to give a frame-by-frame account of what happened to the press, and of course you attempting to call her out for fabricating it when the injury was first revealed, it did happen and that can’t be denied.

    So again. I know there is no proof that Serena has faked injuries, but even examples would be cool.

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. I don’t need a frame-by-frame account. But the frames she gave weren’t consistent. She said she stepped on broken glass. Her agent said she didn’t step on broken glass. She said in the same USA Today column that her doctor said the surgery wasn’t necessary and that her doctor said the surgery was necessary. I mean, these things don’t raise any suspicions for you?

      • Joe

        Yes, things were inconsistent, but I don’t know. They clearly were legitimately confused themselves about the injury, attempting to play Linz and then injuring it even further.

        Anyway, regardless of what happened. One thing for certain is that something did happen. And even if the story was inconsistent, the injury was, in itself, real. She has now missed about 8 months and counting, and so that’s what needs to be focused on.

    • Ernest

      Let the truth be told….

  • Ernest

    If you don’t like the Williams sisters… then just come out and say it… don’t hide behind comments like Serena whines all the time or that another player is more exciting… just admit that you don’t like them and say it…

    • gregcouch

      What do you mean I don’t like “the Williams sisters?” Have you read me saying much negative about Venus? As for Serena, I have ripped her, but also said that she would be the ideal new model for Miss America, smart, athletic, fit, pretty. I’ve also referred to her as a role model for young girls, ripped Wimbledon for not letting her play in front of the Queen when she deserved it, written about what a beautiful thing it is to see the Williams sisters play doubles together. I believe all of that. I also believe that Serena foot-faulted at the U.S. Open, and that her tirade was horrible. I believe she doesn’t try unless it’s a major. I believe she has given her word to show up at places, and then not shown up.

  • Greg

    Nice article. I wonder if there’s been any movement since you wrote. Honestly – I love Venus and Serena (in that order), but have hated how they always bow out of Fed Cup play. I want to see my country do well and it’s hard when you put it all on teenagers – and teenagers ain’t what they used to be. I don’t think they should make a special exception for Venus and Serena. They knew the rules 3 years ago and still CHOSE not to play in Fed Cup in 2009 or 2010. Serena said she’d have to be in a wheelchair to not play in Fed Cup – the final came around, no wheelchair and still no Serena. As much as I love them – they shouldn’t get to play. Maybe this will motivate them to keep playing doubles to enter the 2016 Olympics.

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