So at the morning meeting between various stakeholders, including the USTA and ESPN, it was agreed that the subject would be avoided altogether. And then I came into the picture. Jamie Reynolds understood my bind; if anything, he was ticked at this apparent back-door move that got me mixed up in it. He also agreed that if I were doing the on-court interview holding an ESPN mic, I just had to ask about the incident and the apology controversy. Next, I called Jim Curley. I told him I'd be happy to go out and present the trophy, but if I were to do the on-court interview as well, I was going to ask the uncomfortable question. I had to do it, for the sake of my credibility as a journalist. Jim said, fine, do what you think is best. I then called Gordon Smith, the executive director and COO of the USTA, and told him the same thing. He had a great attitude, and said, "Fine, it's a great opportunity for Serena to apologize in a more public way, on television."
On my way into the stadium, I was lucky enough to bump into ESPN producer and behind-the-scenes reporter Willie Weinbaum. He's a pro; he would understand my bind. He suggested that after I congratulated the women, I should ask a nice, soft question about the incident to give Serena an opportunity to talk about it. But I should have a good, tough backup question ready to go, in the event that she stonewalled.
When the time came, I was ready. After rendering kudos, I acknowledged that it had been a tough forty-eight hours for Serena, and asked if she had anything to say to her fans. Willie was right on; she ducked the questions like a boxer ducking a jab.
I followed up by asking if anything had clicked in her head in the past twenty-four hours, to make her amend her original statement and add an apology. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the crowd started booing and jeering. Venus and Serena both broke out their familiar smiles, the ones that basically say "fuck you." And Venus patronizingly interjected: "I think the crowd is saying, 'Patrick, I think we're all ready to move on.'"
Well, I tried.
Over the next few hours, I received an incredible number of emails lauding me for asking the questions that had to be asked. And it was especially satisfying that so many of the messages were from frontline, respected, fair journalists. They praised me for not letting Serena off the hook so easily. Given some of the inherent, inevitable conflicts in my job, I felt really good about getting the thumbs-up from what can be a very tough crowd. Next to it, the boos from the spectators meant nothing.
Venus and Serena Williams are astonishingly talented, enormously successful players—that they're sisters and have both been ranked at the top and won multiple Grand Slams is one of the greatest sports stories of all time. We've lived it, so we're accustomed to it. I know firsthand how unlikely their history has been, and how exceptional they must be in some way I can't even fathom to have come so far and achieved so much.
None of us can really know what they went through as outsiders in tennis, successfully crashing a game that could hardly have been called popular on the mean streets of Compton, Los Angeles, where they grew up.