Serena Williams may not be playing at the U.S. Open, but she’s dominating conversation on the opening day.
Defending women’s champion Kim Clijsters, who struggled a bit in her first round match against Greta Arn before pulling out a 6-0, 7-5 win, was probably expecting a few questions about Williams in her press conference since it was during her exhibition match in Belgium against Williams that the first reports of Williams’s injury started coming in. So for Clijsters to field questions about the injury was a given, but the fact that tennis journalists still can’t get a final, straight answer from Clijsters, Williams, the WTA, or anyone about what actually happened says a lot about how pro tennis players are more protected than other athletes from media inquiries.
After Williams was seen publicly wearing a medical boot, the initial reports were that she stepped on some glass while barefoot at a Belgian restaurant. Then, during last week’s Pilot Pen Tennis event in New Haven, CBS/ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo said that Williams was actually injured while at a bar in Munich, Germany with friends during Germany’s losing game during the World Cup. According to Carillo, Williams was near an argument where someone tossed a beer bottle onto the floor that broke causing glass to cut Williams’s foot that she only noticed later after a friend told her. But during her commentary tonight during Venus Williams’s opening round match against Roberta Vinci, Carillo couldn’t confirm that if it was a beer bottle or some other piece of glass that actually cut Williams’s foot, but she did say that the cut was “an inch deep”.
This is where Clijsters comes in. After winning her match today, Clijsters was asked about Williams’s injury and the following exchange occurred.
Q. Serena obviously stepped in at the last minute to play that incredible exhibition in Belgium. Did she say anything to you before or after the match about her injury?
KIM CLIJSTERS: No, no. We also did a press conference together. No, I mean, they asked her about it, so no. I obviously saw her injury, but I didn’t get the explanation.
Q. Have you been surprised about the severity, how severe it’s turned out to be?
KIM CLIJSTERS: No, because I saw — I saw the injury, so — and it’s not something that she’s making up or that it’s a small cut or anything.
Q. Is it on the bottom of the foot or the top of the foot?
KIM CLIJSTERS: Both, both feet.
Q. On both feet?
KIM CLIJSTERS: Yeah.
Q. Was it on the bottom of the foot or the top of the foot?
KIM CLIJSTERS: Um, I don’t remember. I wasn’t paying such close attention.
Q. Well, if you don’t remember whether it was on the bottom or the top…
KIM CLIJSTERS: No.
Although one can’t blame those journalists in the room trying to find a new morsel of info out of Clijsters who apparently is one of the few witnesses to the actual injury outside of Williams and her doctors, why is it so hard for these same journalists to get to the real reason behind the injury? It’s obvious that it’s serious enough to prevent Williams from playing in her nation’s Grand Slam, but why all the mystery and conflicting stories?
Part of the problem is the iron fist the WTA tour keeps over access to its players. Outside of tournament press conferences and magazine/television interviews that players give, once pre-approved by the players, their agents/managers and handlers, it’s still hard for journalists to get access to the pros. Add in that the WTA can’t mandate that players fully disclose injuries like the NFL, MLB or other professional sports leagues, and one sees how trying to get to the bottom of a player’s injury is almost a waste of time.
It’s very unfortunate that Serena Williams can’t compete in this year’s U.S. Open. But the fact that she, the WTA tour, and tennis journalists won’t and can’t officially and conclusively explain what happened to her foot only hurts those players competing in New York this year as it will only continue to grow doubt in many fans’ minds that whoever wins the U.S. Open title this year may not have done so if Williams were in the draw. Williams’s injury was the big story leading into the U.S Open. But let’s hope that it doesn’t continue to overshadow the efforts of those players actually competing for the last Grand Slam of the year for the next two weeks.