Smarts and brawn

September 21, 1999|By Derrick Z. Jackson

JUST before the U.S. Open final between Martina Hingis and Serena Williams, CBS' John McEnroe said: "The Williams sisters are so physically gifted. I mean particularly Serena, who is just absolutely incredible to me.

"I mean I never, ever seen a 17-year-old girl, to be honest, I've rarely seen a 17-year-old guy on the tennis circuit who looks as strong as she does.

"And that's a very imposing task for Hingis. And what [Ms. Hingis] has done is worked hard and get herself stronger physically. She's incredible in the sense that she's a step or two ahead of almost other human beings on the tennis court.

"She sees things that most people don't, that virtually no one sees. She's like a chess master out there. She's a step or two in front of what you're thinking she's going to come up with. She comes up with angles that are almost unimaginable."

Mr. McEnroe's colleague, Mary Carillo, added that Ms. Hingis, "had to get physically fitter because, she's so bright as John's been saying, but you can't coach someone to be four inches taller."

Thus the stage was set, not just between Ms. Williams and Ms. Hingis, two young stars, but also for whether this would be another disgusting display of racist stereotyping.

It seemed that TV viewers were doomed to hear that Ms. Williams was an uncoachable, born Amazon while Ms. Hingis was the physically deficient but bright and hard-working chess master.

An hour and a half later, Serena Williams not only won the championship, but also respect for her hard work and brains. Ms. Williams, the seventh seed in the tournament, defeated the top-seeded and world's top-ranked woman, Ms. Hingis 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).

Ms. Williams said afterward, "I was really mentally tough out there. I wouldn't give in to anything." Ms. Williams' deft placement of deep shots to the corners and cross-court winners made believers out of the broadcasters.

It is important to note that her tough mind was not developed at preteen, white-run tennis camps and on the lonely, myopic junior circuit littered with burnouts. It was developed at home by parents Richard and Oracene, who kept Serena and her sister Venus away from the pressure cooker until their mid-teens.

Once the match started, Mr. McEnroe, Ms. Carillo and Bill Macatee began believing that Serena Williams was more than just shoulders to die for.

Early in the first set, she hit the ball so well that Mr. McEnroe, Ms. Carillo and Mr. Macatee started talking about how "confident" she looked.

Later in the first set, they began talking about her "maturity." Noting how Ms. Williams had frozen Ms. Hingis with several aces with a strategic placing of serves, Ms. Carillo said, Ms. Williams "goes for the 115s (115 mph serves) largely down the middle of the court where the net's six inches lower. Smart."

Mr. McEnroe said Ms. Williams played "very intelligently, so far." This was a more conditional credit for intelligence, which hardly compares to Ms. Hingis being called "bright" as a permanent state. But at least McEnroe displayed a learning curve about Ms. Williams even as he said she was "learning quickly."

In a tense second set, the broadcasters were remarkable for comments that did not distinguish between the two players. When Ms. Williams played well, she "hustled" was "very smart" and had "great technique."

If she played poorly, she had "lots of nerves" or was "feeling the pressure." If Ms. Hingis played well, she was "very, very smart," "dug deep" or was "plugging away."

If Ms. Hingis played poorly, she was "not in charge," "not imposing herself" or "stunned."

As Serena Williams went up 3-1 in the tie-breaker, Mr. McEnroe recognized for a last and critical time that Ms. Williams indeed had a head: "It appears Serena has weathered the storm mentally. She's positive again. She's forgotten about [an earlier, blown chance to win the match]."

By the match's end, Ms. Williams was no longer merely a born bronze Amazon. She was smart, hustled, displayed great technique and was a mental fighter.

Given how sports broadcasters have in the past degraded black athletes by praising only their physical gifts, this was a pleasant advance.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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