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MIKE DOWNEY

Maybe Ashe Would Have Understood

September 08, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW YORK — I wish we could ask Arthur Ashe.

He had such wisdom, such insight. Arthur usually gave good advice. So many other tennis players, they have such insouciance about the world at large. They seldom seem to care about anything that happens outside the lines. Arthur cared.

If only he were here Sunday--at the complex named for him posthumously--I would have welcomed Ashe's spin on what we saw and heard. My guess is, he would adore Venus Williams. What I wonder is, what would he make of Richard Williams?

Myself, I haven't a clue what to make of Venus' father and coach. The remarks he made Saturday make me feel squeamish. I don't know, maybe that's good.

The man is obviously doing something right. He has steered Venus' career from her childhood in Compton through her adolescence. Everything she did at the U.S. Open over the last fortnight was a thing of beauty and a joy forever, her 6-0, 6-4 loss Sunday to top-woman-in-the-world Martina Hingis notwithstanding.

I think Venus handled herself beautifully.

But her father is a hard guy to figure. First, he never even showed up. (Remember, he's her coach.) And some of the things Williams said, long distance, made the fuzz stand right up on my tennis ball.

Like:

* Venus need not speak to her opponents because "they're dumb," he said.

* Venus and Irina Spirlea bumping into each other as they walked to their chairs was "a racial thing" because the Romanian did it on purpose, he said.

* And furthermore, Spirlea is "a big, tall, white turkey," he said, in apparent response to Spirlea using an obscenity in referring to Venus.

* And, good thing Spirlea didn't bump into Venus' little sister, Serena, or else "she would have been decked," he said.

Outspoken? Just kidding?

Beats me. I mean, is Richard Williams simply trying to be clever when he says that Venus would have been justified in doing to Spirlea "the same thing Mike Tyson did biting Evander Holyfield?"

Funny line. Was he serious?

Williams sure sounded serious on the phone with an AP reporter when he said, "We will not step back and be the nice people they think we are. They have to realize we're from Compton, Calif.

"In Compton, you don't take no bull."

Make a good T-shirt.

I don't know how Ashe felt as a young boy growing up in Richmond, Va., but there is sizable respect there now for his accomplishments.

There is a statue of him holding a tennis racket, four children kneeling before him. Arthur was a Pied Piper for kids. Such a strong influence. Such a good leader to follow.

Upon winning the U.S. Open in 1968, becoming the first man of African American roots to win a Grand Slam title, Ashe called it proof that the world of tennis was, truly, finally, indisputably "open."

That was nearly 30 years ago.

Mal Washington, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin . . . they have traveled that open path. Althea Gibson carried the torch, standing tall as the Statue of Liberty, by winning the 1957-58 U.S. Opens.

The first didn't come until Gibson had turned 30.

That's what makes the precocity of Venus Williams--as with that of Martina Hingis or their predecessors--so compelling. And it is also what makes Richard Williams' remarks so disconcerting. I honestly don't know what to say: "Right on!" or "Knock it off!"

Venus takes it personally when anyone asks if her father will remain her coach.

When someone did Sunday, she said, "I have a good coach, right now. I don't see any need to change. I made it to the finals. I did OK. My coach is very competent. My mother's very competent. My dad is competent. They know the game. So, I think the criticism has to stop, because people are taking it a little bit too far and it's not part of your life. You guys are getting overly involved."

But about what he said . . . ?

"I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions."

Your father didn't have to comment . . .

"You didn't have to bring it up," Venus volleyed.

Point made.

In the house of Ashe, I wish we could consult our host.

I think he would say, "Everybody's entitled to his opinion." And he wouldn't want anybody to bite anybody's ear off.

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