Monday, June 09, 2003

What War Has Done
To Our Americans In Paris

It was bound to happen. It was just a matter of time. The cutesy, sweetsy sweet-talk about how well Americans were being received at the French Open gave way to babbling and head-scratching by the ESPN2 broadcast crew. As Serena Williams bore several rounds of boos toward the end of her grueling match with Justine Henin-Hardenne, something other than good will was in the air.

It's ridiculous for Americans to expect to be greeted with open arms in the wake of the vicious verbal campaign the Bushies waged against France for not rubber-stamping the second Iraq war. The accusation of "Old World" irrelevance was a particularly sharp wound to Gallic pride and patience. As long as Americans were simply competing at the French Open, matters remained at a low boil. Once it became apparent Yankee players had a better than even chance of toting off the hardware, the fan attitudes changed.

Things began to get unsettled in the stands during the match between Venus Williams and Vera Zvonareva. Despite a muscle pull in her stomach area, Venus soldiered on but fell to the Russian in the fourth round match. Her physical problems were well advertised before the French Open began and probably accounted for her lackluster play. She didn't complain. Yet, she wasn't spared a savage round of boos when the match ended.

Andre Agassi, the darling of the tennis world, didn't fare much better. Andre struggled mightily against the younger, more resilient dirt-baller, Guillermo Coria. The Argentinean easily ran down Agassi's crosscourt drives, forcing him to play an extra ball over and over again. It's widely known Andre moves poorly on red clay and this weakness was exposed by Coria. However, the fans began to rumble their displeasure towards the end of the match as if Andre was somehow dogging it. He was simply being outclassed by a feisty player who was very comfortable skating around Centre Court. Andre sensed the displeasure and literally hurried to the finish line when the outcome became obvious. There were some boos as he left the court. He had a look on his face that he couldn't wait to leave the City of Lights under the cloak of darkness.

These two instances pale in comparison to the unprecedented verbal violence heaped upon Serena Williams toward the end of her tough match with Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne. The boos began when Serena questioned three important line calls. Each time, the umpire decided the point in Serena's favor. Despite the fact the match was played fairly with no animosity between the players, the fans turned on Serena with a vengeance. The brutal booing clearly affected Serena's play at the moment she was poised to push for the win. Justine, seizing the momentary advantage, picked up her play and beat Serena with a lot of negative help from the frothing fans. Serena was forced to leave the court under a hail of boos. The look on her face was: "Why? Why are they doing this to me?" Was this any way to treat this great champion and holder of all four Grand Slam titles? The behavior of the fans was simply disgraceful.

Most remarkable, the tournament directors should've foreseen these problems and planned accordingly. Instead, they took the head-in-the-sand approach, praying all would end well. It didn't and they're to blame for doing nothing to quell quickly any anti-American displays from the fans. The umpires at these matches made no effort to nip the discontent in the bud. Once the fans realized the officials weren't going to challenge their bad behavior, this only encouraged more of the same nastiness. These incidents damaged the French fortnight irreparably despite the great tennis already played and soon to come. Will American athletes face the same politically charged atmosphere at Wimbledon or future tennis venues? For the sake of this great sport, something must be done about this uncivil turn of events and it must be done soon.

None of us should be surprised at the ugliness in Paris. It was going to happen. It was just a matter of how and when. Add to this mix various racist, sexist and classist sentiments lurking for any excuse to vent and you have an explosive brew indeed. The Bush administration created an evil storm cloud over all things American. When the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks expressed her opinion about the hoodlum honchos in Washington, the Bushie reaction wasn't to listen but to suppress her freedom of speech. The other nations noted our Ugly Americanism and they're duly appalled. Whether George Bush wishes to admit it or not, America does need the rest of humanity. It's just so sad to watch our innocent athletes paying the price for the sins of our Fatherland.

Franklin L. Johnson