No ‘next man up’ in tennis
9:13 PM
Art Spander in BNP Paribas Open, Serena Williams, articles, tennis

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The words went straight to the heart and — no less important in today’s sporting world — the television ratings. “Sadly, I have to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open,” said Serena Williams in a statement.

Of course it was in a statement. That’s the way stars dole out bad news these days. In a statement, or in the case of Tiger Woods, on his web site. As little direct contact as possible.

So we accept it. The way Serena has to accept her knee problems.

The way people in charge of the BNP tennis event have to accept the reality that the world’s No. 1 women’s player will not be entering what is the sport’s first big event since the Australian Open, which Serena won, defeating older sister Venus in a historic final.

The way that golf people accept that Tiger Woods is battling the same difficulties as Serena, relative old age leading to constant ailments that never heal.

There's nobody to blame. There are injuries in every sport, as we’re all too aware with Kevin Durant. “Next man up” is the litany. The trouble in individual sports, dependent on stars and personalities, sports without team loyalty, is there may not be a “next” man or woman.

There’s only one Serena. Only one Tiger.

The older you get, the more you’re injured. The fact is undeniable. The years of swinging a tennis racquet or golf club take their toll.

Tiger was different, special. He brought non-golfers to golf, attracted a new, expanded following, crossed ethnic and social barriers.

It wasn’t the game itself that proved fascinating. Some didn’t know a birdie from a bogey. But they knew Tiger.

Knew he was winning, knew he was spectacular, knew he was unique.

Now Tiger, 41, after two back surgeries, rehab and painful attempts at playing, is idled in Florida.

Three weeks ago in the Genesis Open, the former Los Angeles Open, an event benefitting the Tiger Woods Foundation, an event for which Woods was the unofficial host, he was ordered by his doctor not even to appear at Riviera Country Club to address the media but to stay horizontal. That’s serious.

Serena’s condition, the left knee that bothered her at the U.S. Open last summer, seems less critical. However, Williams is 35 and has had knee troubles in the past. That she waited until two days ago to announce her withdrawal from the BNP Paribas is somewhat bewildering. Did she think the knee would heal in a few days when she hadn’t played in a tournament since the Australian at the end of January?

Indian Wells already was missing Victoria Azarenka, on maternity leave; Maria Sharapova, who has one month left in her 15-month suspension for taking a drug banned by the WTA but available in her native Russia; and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, recovering from stab wounds inflicted during a robbery of her apartment in the Czech Republic just before Christmas.

The advice in these situations from some is not to write about those who aren’t in a tournament but those who are. Yet Serena and Sharapova truly are bigger than their sport, just as Tiger is in his. They can’t be ignored. 

People who wouldn’t cross the street, or the base line, to watch tennis would very happily choose to see Williams. Or Sharapova.

Even in team sports it’s all about the individual, about Tom Brady or Steph Curry or Alex Ovechkin, the stars who make the money and the headlines, which certainly describes Serena.

Bill Veeck, the late team owner and promoter, used to say if you had to depend on baseball fans for support “you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.” You’d better bring in the curious, the outsiders.

Veeck did it with gimmicks, sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to bat for the St. Louis Browns, holding disco night with the Chicago White Sox.

Tennis has to rely on famous players. In America, maybe the world, there’s no woman tennis player as famous, and successful, as Serena Williams. She’ll be missed.

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