Controversy quickly hits U.S. Open

Hingis, Navratilova contend Williams sisters get advantages due to race

Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001

NEW YORK -- A Grand Slam tournament wouldn't be complete without controversy involving the Williams family, and the U.S. Open began Monday amid a debate about whether the sisters enjoy an advantage because they're black.

That's the contention of Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova.

Serena Williams tends to doubt it.

''I have gone to a store and been treated differently because I was black once,'' she said. ''Other than that, no.''

Williams, the 1999 Open champion, overcame a slow start in her first-round match to beat Anca Barna 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. She joined four other former women's champions -- Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario -- in the second round.

Two-time champions Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter advanced on the men's side, as did defending champ Marat Safin.

For Williams, the primary topic in her postmatch news conference wasn't a ragged performance that included 42 unforced errors, but rather a cover story about her and sister Venus in the latest issue of Time magazine. The article revisits the contention first made last spring by Hingis and Navratilova that being black is an advantage for the Williams family.

Hingis said the sisters get more endorsement deals because of their race. For the same reason, Navratilova said, people are reluctant to criticize the family's behavior.

Serena Williams responded: ''I think in a sport that is a predominantly white sport, when people see new faces, like for instance golf with Tiger Woods, maybe if hockey were to have a superstar that was Spanish or maybe black, I think then maybe it would get a few more people to watch the sport. ...

''I get endorsements because I win, and I work hard. I go out there and have a good attitude and I smile.''

Hingis said she didn't understand why comments she made several months ago were news now.

''I think I was right at that time,'' she said. ''Why is it such a big deal?''

Davenport came to the defense of the sisters.

''They're great girls,'' she said. ''They've changed totally in the five or six years they've played on the tour. I have no problems with them. They've done amazing things for our sport.

''A lot of times the fights aren't with them. The fights are a lot of times what other people say about them.''

Most matches on the first day weren't nearly so contentious. No. 3 Davenport, playing on the 10th anniversary of her U.S. Open debut, beat Andrea Glass 6-2, 6-3. The No. 1-seeded Hingis opened play on Arthur Ashe Stadium and routed two-time NCAA champion Laura Granville 6-2, 6-0.

No. 7 Seles beat Nicole Pratt 6-1, 6-2. No. 20 Sanchez-Vicario had a much tougher time, edging Petra Mandula 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5).

American twins Mike and Bob Bryan lost to former champions. Mike was beaten by Agassi 6-4, 6-1, 6-0. Rafter, playing in perhaps his final Grand Slam tournament, swept Bob Bryan 7-6 (3), 6-3, 7-5.

A small gray patch in Rafter's short black hair is the only evidence of the toll nine years on the men's tour has taken. But the 28-year-old Australian is weary of the grind and looking forward to a six-month break that might turn into retirement.

Rafter announced in January that he would stop playing -- perhaps permanently -- at the end of 2001. His plan hasn't changed, even though he was the runner-up to Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon and reached the finals in three tournaments this month, winning at Indianapolis.

''I don't want to be around tennis for a while and see how much I miss it, if I do or not,'' Rafter said.

The victory over Bryan was Rafter's first at the U.S. Open since he won the 1998 final. He retired during a first-round match in 1999 because of a shoulder injury, then lost in the opening round last year to Galo Blanco.

Against Bryan, Rafter served and volleyed well and faced only two break points. But ''the Wizard of Aus,'' as one fan's sign described him, lost the point of the day.

A long rally ended with both players at the net. Bryan dived for three consecutive shots and from his knees floated a volley over the head of Rafter, who retreated and dumped a backhand into the net.

''Guys are telling me in the locker room that's maybe one of the top 10 points in U.S. Open history,'' Bryan said.

Rafter, cracking a smile, said: ''I've got him on his knees, literally, and I played it back to him. That's not really smart when you think about it.''

Rafter hopes to play smarter as he moves through the toughest quarter of the draw. He could face four-time champion Pete Sampras, Agassi and Safin in consecutive matches en route to the final.

Still, Rafter might be the man to beat on the medium-fast Open hardcourt surface, which perfectly suits his aggressive game. He's at his best when he plays a lot, and he has played 18 matches in the past month.

His recent results are reminiscent of 1997 and 1998, when he won consecutive Open titles.

''Things look good,'' he said. ''In '97 and '98, I came in with a lot of tennis. Again here I've come in with a lot of tennis. It's sort of like an omen. I'm just trying to ride the wave as long as I can.''

Win or lose, Rafter's ride will soon end -- for a few months at least, and perhaps for good.

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