RealClearSports: Serena Williams, A Conundrum of a Champion

By Art Spander

It’s her life. Maybe we should let it go at that. Maybe we should appreciate what Serena Williams has given to sport, to her sport of tennis, appreciate the championships and the panache, acknowledge what is, rather than question what might have been.

Maybe the gentle arrogance and the irritating independence are at the heart of her success, and the success of her sister, Venus. Maybe if she acted like the other players, thought like the other players, she’d be just another player, and not one who earned the titles, if not always earning the proper respect.

Serena won a first-round match at the French Open on Tuesday, won it in agonizing fashion for someone who, depending on either her viewpoint or the WTA rankings, is the best or second best female player on the globe.

She staggered and stumbled and squandered eight match points before finally dispatching somebody named Klara Zakopalova, who is ranked 100th.

But she won. As she has so often, confounding some, enthralling others. Oh, what a gift those sisters were awarded, such athleticism. Oh, what brilliance those sisters displayed. Oh, what doubts those sisters created.

The critics have badgered Venus, older by 15 months, and Serena, practically forever. When they weren’t praising them.

Venus and Serena were different, two African-Americans in a sport once as white as the attire prescribed for Wimbledon. They grew up on the tough streets of Compton, east of Los Angeles, instructed and shepherded by a father who made bold predictions and made others outraged.

The Williams sisters, the Williams family, were separate from the rest. They were more powerful than the rest. For a while in the early 2000s, it was Venus against Serena or Serena against Williams in virtually every final of every Grand Slam. A whimpering Amelie Mauresmo, who eventually would go on to win Wimbledon and the Australian, once proclaimed such domination unfair.

Then Venus either lost interest or was constantly injured. Or both. Then Serena got bored and went into movies or was constantly injured. Or both. But when Venus won Wimbledon in ’07 and ’08 and Serena the ’08 U.S. Open and ’09 Australian, a new theory was put forth. The opportunity to escape to other interests is what enabled the Sisters Williams to stay after other winners — Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin — departed because of burnout.

Still, Mary Carillo, the great tennis commentator, was adamant about the Williams’ careers, particularly that of Serena. Not that long ago, Serena and Tiger Woods were at the top of their respective sports. Tiger hasn’t left. Serena was a missing person.

“You can’t waste time when you’re an athlete,” said Carillo. “Careers are short. I thought Serena was going to break every record. She should have.”

But even with 10 Grand Slam victories, she has not.

Two weeks back, when Dinara Safina of Russia replaced her in the No. 1 position in the rankings, Serena huffed, “We all know who is No. 1. Quite frankly I’m the best in the world.”

Did we detect a bit of bitterness? Or was Serena attempting to remind us that when dropshot comes to forehand, she’d be the last one standing? The great thing about individual sports is you go out and beat everyone and you can’t be denied.

We’re never going to get into the psyche of Serena or Venus. We’re never going to learn why they always seem to be hurt when they lose. Or why they don’t always give an opponent credit when they win.

“My goal,” Serena said last year, “always has been to have the best time and to do the best I can.” She’s had the time of her life. Others worry that at age 27, time and tennis have passed her by. That would be hard to believe, especially since Serena has talked of competing in the ’12 Olympics.

The French, at Roland Garros in Paris, is played on red clay. Americans traditionally haven’t done well on the surface, although Serena won the tournament in 2002. This year, Serena had lost her only three matches on clay, one of those to Zakopalova, a Czech.

“I think I just played horrendous,” Serena said of her first-round win, sounding very unlike the young lady who a few days earlier boasted she was “quite frankly the best in the world.”

“I think I was a little nervous because I hadn’t won a match on clay all year, and I was desperate for a win.”

Desperate is a word new to Serena’s vocabulary. She’s never felt the need to use it. Now she understands. She owes us nothing, but she owes herself the chance to play every match as if it will be her last.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009. 

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© RealClearSports 2009 

SF Examiner: Bay Area teams hurt by MLB scheduling

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

There was a woman, an entertainer, who in her era was scandalous but today wouldn’t even draw a reprimand from the so-called religious right. Mae West was the lady’s name, and among her axioms was one advising too much of a good thing is wonderful.

For no good reason, the people who create the schedules for major league baseball unfortunately have concurred. Thus the beginning of the week the Giants and A’s both have been playing at home. Not too bad for the Giants, who on Memorial Day drew 40,034 to AT&T Park.

Terrible for the A’s, who on the very same Monday afternoon had only 15,280. That, surprisingly and delightfully, both teams managed a rare combo win begs the issue. If a game is played and virtually nobody watches it — the situation for the A’s — does it count? It’s tough enough in Oakland, with the team crawling along on the bottom of American League West, but to force the A’s to go head-to-head for attendance with the more established Giants at the same time in a different — and less attractive — place, is grossly unfair.

Not that people beyond our fair region give a hoot. The Mets and Yankees have no trouble getting both attention and attendance in a metropolitan area of 18 million. Chicago can handle the Cubs and White Sox playing a few miles apart, and the Dodgers are in Los Angeles and the Angels are in Anaheim — no matter what the name implies — a 30-mile separation.

We’re told scheduling difficulties are caused by interleague play and there aren’t enough dates available to prevent conflicts. So baseball gives the A’s the shaft, and it isn’t being very kind to the Giants because both teams must jockey for space in papers shrinking like, well, I was going to say Travis Ishikawa’s batting average, but then the man hits a home run and goes 4-for-4. 

There was an era when the term June Swoon held great fear for Giants fans, the team usually playing well through May and then collapsing as summer arrived. It won’t be a problem this year for a franchise that is helpless at the plate — or was until Ishikawa’s unforeseen breakout.

The rumored trade for Dan Uggla? Or Nick Johnson? Neither deal would hurt. But the name Matt Cain should not be allowed in any discussion. Better to lose, 2-1, which the Giants have done much too often, than 8-7, which is what the A’s did the other night after holding a 5-1 lead going into eighth against Arizona.

After spring training, the suggestion was if you could link the A’s hitting with the Giants’ pitching you might have a winner. The problem has been the A’s weren’t hitting, and while the Giants do have a strong staff, particularly Cain, Tim Lincecum and hard-luck Barry Zito, they also have Brian Wilson, who can blow any lead.

Each club is stuck mostly with what it has. And the beginning of this week each was stuck playing home games against the other. A bad idea indeed.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company

A’s make a mess of game in which Giambi makes history

OAKLAND –  History? The Athletics made some Saturday night. At least Jason Giambi did. They also made a mess of a game they should have won, but of course did not win.

Because they are the Athletics.

This one was as bad it gets for a team that’s become very bad.  That’s become terrible. That’s become atrocious. That’s always been agonizing.

A team that has the second worst record in the American League, the third worst in the majors.

A team that carried a 5-1 lead into the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are almost as awful as the A’s, and then ended up losing to the D-backs, 8-7, in 11 excruciating innings.

Remember that Sinatra song, “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week’’? Not this Saturday night. Not with 21,295 people in the stands at the Coliseum. Maybe a majority came for the post-game fireworks show, not that it matters. Maybe a majority came for the in-game fireworks.

Four home runs by the A’s, including the 400th of his career by Giambi. Another by Jack Cust, who, with practically every living soul in the stadium playing him to pull to right, where he had homered in the first, bunted safely down the third-base line. Another by Adam Kennedy. Another by Nomar Garciaparra.

Four home runs, and a seventh loss in the last nine games. And a 25th loss in 40 games overall.

Four home runs and no pitching. If you don’t count Edgar Gonzalez, up from the minors and making his first start for Oakland, against his last big-league team, Arizona. Went five innings and gave up only a run. You mean the A’s were going to win one? Ha!

Russ Springer, the third of seven – yes, seven – A’s pitchers started the eighth for the A’s and gave up three straight hits. He was replaced by Andrew Bailey, who after an out allowed a single to Eric Byrnes that scored two runs and a double to Chad Tracy that scored two more. And it was 5-5.

Where it stayed until the 11th, when Craig Breslow and Santiago Casilla combined to disprove the label “reliever’’ as Arizona scored three runs. That Oakland got a couple in the bottom of the inning only proved all the more agitating.

Especially for Giambi, who in the 13th year of his career returned to the A’s with the idea he might provide a bit of power, which finally he has done, and some credibility.

“We’ve got to stop giving away games,’’ said Giambi. “Hopefully we can turn it around before we bury ourselves.’’

They’ve already been buried. The season is done. All that’s left is pride. And it’s not even June.

Giambi drew some cheers from a crowd that at game’s close, 3 hours and 44 minutes after the beginning, was given to booing. Understandably.

“It’s an incredible thing,’’ Giambi said of becoming the 44th player to reach the 400-homer mark. “I had lots of ups and downs. The biggest thing is it was here in Oakland . I wish it could have been sooner, but I’m glad they got to see it where I started.’’

What they also saw was an A’s team unable to free itself from failure. Oakland hit those four home runs off the man the A’s traded to Arizona, Dan Haren, the most he ever allowed in a game. But you’ve got to stop the other team, and Oakland could not.

How’s it going to change? In a stretch of four games at Detroit and Tampa Bay a few days ago, the A’s were outscored a combined 47-13. That’s not baseball, that’s a debacle.

Those billboards advertise that the A’s are “100 percent baseball.’’  In truth, they’re 100 percent sad. The A’s play them close, and they lose. The A’s get smacked around, they lose. As if we needed any additional proof, that’s the mark of a team without hope.

Oakland signed Giambi and Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra. But none is a pitcher. None comes out of the bullpen.

Even the bottom feeders in baseball win 60 to 70 games, but that won’t do around here. For the last year we kept hearing all that wasted talk about the A’s building a ballpark. What they need to build is a team.

Jason Giambi and the batters did what they could. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough when a game that should be won turns into a game that’s a reflection of a season beyond repair.

RealClearSports: Michael Vick Will Be Back

By Art Spander

He will be back. Whether we like it or not, Michael Vick again will be in the NFL, again playing football, again making a big salary, again being chased by linebackers and by autograph seekers. Success trumps morality.

These are the words and phrases too frequently heard and seen the last few days: He has paid his debt to society. Everyone deserves a second chance. He has learned his lesson.The question is, have we learned our lesson? And will we ever learn it?

Do attributes such as being able to throw a football or shoot a basketball take precedent over a value system? When do we stop giving in to our urge to be champions? When do we judge an individual on the way he or she treats others, or treats animals, rather than simply on athletic talent?

Losing is the great American sin. John Tunis wrote that. He was a Harvard grad, a journalist and then, before and after World War II, an author of juvenile sporting fiction. But that’s no childhood hypothesis from Tunis.

We will do virtually anything, and use virtually anyone, to win.

The way the St. Louis Rams used Leonard Little after he was convicted of manslaughter when, his blood level far above that of intoxication, Little crashed his SUV into and killed Susan Gutweiler in 1998.

He got 90 days in jail, four years probation and a spot in the starting lineup for a Super Bowl. Six years later he was acquitted of driving while intoxicated.

Leonard Little killed an innocent victim, if unintentionally. Michael Vick killed innocent dogs, and it was intentional. He was sent to prison. As we are well aware from television coverage worthy of the appearance of a head of state, Vick has been released to home confinement.

The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, told us, “Michael’s going to have to demonstrate to myself and the general public and to a lot of people, did he learn anything from this experience? Does he regret what happened…”

I regret what happened. I have two dogs. Bless the beasts and children. Vick and his cronies tortured the beasts. That’s not nearly as terrible as what Leonard Little did. Or is it?

The disturbing part of Vick’s over-publicized release from Leavenworth Prison to home confinement was the way it was analyzed. Not in how he should be judged as a person but only as a football player. “Four teams could use him,” was one of the reports.

He’ll play. Goodell, wisely, will refrain from making a decision on allowing Vick to rejoin the league, waiting while Vick offers contrition, while groups such as the SPCA or Humane Society monitor his supposed progress.

Eventually Michael Vick will return as much because he might help some team win a title as because we are a forgiving nation.

Two viewpoints on Vick’s possible reinstatement were in Sporting News today. “Let me put it this way,” said Paul Hornung, the onetime all-pro for the Packers and a Heisman Trophy winner. “I love dogs. If I was commissioner I’d be a lot tougher on these guys … I just don’t think he should get in.”

That Hornung was suspended the 1963 season for gambling is an issue that may or may not be relevant.

Ted Hendricks, a linebacker who along with Hornung is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said of Vick, “He’s paid his debt to society, so I think he should be reinstated. I’m sure he’ll be an asset to whoever signs him.”

Of course. Or no one would sign him.

If Michael Vick were an ordinary player, all this would be moot. Except for the dog fighting, which is both despicable and illegal. But Vick was the first player taken in the 2001 draft, a quarterback who can run as well as pass, a quarterback who can make a difference.

Vick is special. That with his talent, fame and wealth he needed to find enjoyment from an activity in which helpless animals are set upon each other is beyond the understanding of most of us.

Humans make mistakes. That we do comprehend. Yet there’s difference in going 50 mph in a 35 zone and in operating a dog-fighting network over a period of five years.

Michael Vick will be back. He’ll say the correct things and do the correct things. Roger Goodell will approve reinstatement and some team that figures all it needs is Michael Vick to get to the Super Bowl will sign him.

I’ll grit my teeth and wish him well.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009

RealClearSports: A Collision, Not a Dance

By Art Spander

The game is portrayed as one of elegance and grace, ballet in Nikes. In truth, pro basketball is a contact sport, with huge men crashing into each other, shoving and pushing. They’d just as soon knock down an opponent as they would knock down a jumper.

We weren’t sure what to expect when the Lakers met the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Other than there would be a lot of fouls. Oh, and that the Nuggets would try to intimidate a Laker team that had everyone bewildered. Including the Lakers themselves.

A few weeks ago, in our usual rush to judgment, and with our monumental impatience, the NBA finalists had been decided, at least by people who have nothing better to do than express opinions.

It would be the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Lakers. It would be LeBron James against Kobe Bryant. It still might be, although we are less sure. And to hear Kobe talk after the Lakers staggered past the Nuggets, 105-103, in the opener of the Western Conference finals, maybe the Lakers also were less sure.

Although the win, which seemingly halted the problems and the doubts created when the Lakers at times lacked direction and maybe lacked a little heart, probably changed everything.

Had the Nuggets been up 1-0 after a game on the Lakers’ home floor, they would be in control. Jack Nicholson and the other swells in the $2,500 courtside seats would be distraught. But it’s the Lakers up 1-0, winning a game of floor burns and bruised bodies, if not of bruised egos.

“They outplayed us,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, “and we won the game.”

Unlike a couple of those miserable performances against the Houston Rockets in the last series, when the Lakers needed the entire seven games to beat a team without its two main men, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

The Lakers won because they have Kobe Bryant, who scored 40 points, 18 in the fourth quarter. And because they have Trevor Ariza, who in the closing seconds made a steal that showed anticipation as well as agility.

They won despite Carmelo Anthony, who scored 39 for the Nuggets.

This is what you expect from the big ones, your best players at their best. And so it was with Kobe and Carmelo. One would score. Then the other. Bryant courageously tried to stop Anthony on defense.

“He’s a bull,” Bryant would say in interviews carried on ESPNEWS.

A few days ago, after they had beaten the Rockets by 40 at home, the Lakers lost to the Rockets by 15 on the road. The probable matchup against the Cavs and LeBron seemed as far away as Mars. The sharp knives were out, wielded by critics who justifiably thought the Lakers caved in.

Even Kobe on Tuesday night felt compelled to use the word “capitulated,” indicating he was no less disgusted than the rest of us.

There was no capitulation against the Nuggets, who, while a lesser team than the Lakers, have the paranoia necessary to want to succeed. Denver is out to show something. The Lakers, on the other hand, are mostly worried about showtime.

The Lakers are more than L.A.’s team, they are L.A.’s focus. There’s no pro football franchise, if you don’t count USC, albeit many people do. There are only the Dodgers, Manny-less at the moment but still winning, and the Lakers, a team of stars and of the Hollywood stars. Along with Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Drew Barrymore and Justin Timberlake were in attendance.

Every time the Lakers are on the court, especially postseason, it’s less an athletic contest than a production number. You think the reviews were tough for “Angels & Demons,” check them out after the Lakers have a bad night. The water cooler talk about Tom Hanks is no less catty than it is about Kobe or Pau Gasol.

Kobe is The Man. As opposed to The Manny. Bryant had his own troubles six years ago, but those are a distant memory. Now Kobe is an MVP. Now Kobe is a savior.

“I could score 35 a night if I want, but that’s not something I’m concerned with,” he said without bragging. “I want to win a championship. Tonight, it was something we needed, but that’s not my goal.”

Jackson, the Lakers coach, agreed. “We had very little else going for us besides Kobe,” he insisted. “And at the end when we needed a basket he muscled his way through.”

In pro basketball, you get physical or you get beat.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009