No Excuse for No-Shows

Times Staff Writer

Venus and Serena Williams grew up in Los Angeles. Serena Williams has a home here. The talented, charismatic, tennis-playing sisters spent time here this week at a fashion show and doing television appearances, marketing themselves.

Steffi Graf lives in Las Vegas and though she is a new mother, her daughter having been born last month, her tennis income would have afforded her the ability to charter a private plane for the hour flight to L.A.

Monica Seles earned the love and respect of tennis fans everywhere because of her tragic stabbing on a tennis court and her all-out grunting intensity when she played. She also earned millions of dollars because of her sport and although Seles is rehabbing a chronic foot injury, she too could have afforded traveling to L.A. and appearing at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario fought her way to a No. 1 ranking and four Grand Slam titles with her dogged ability to run for every shot. She's retired to Spain now, but a trip to Southern California wouldn't seem to be punishing.

There was a well-choreographed and quite necessary tribute to 30 years of WTA history after the two women's semifinal matches during the Bank of America WTA Tour Championships Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. History lessons never hurt.

All 13 of the women who have been ranked No. 1 over the last 30 years were invited to the ceremony. Eight showed up. The Williams sisters Graf, Seles and Sanchez Vicario didn't.

Billie Jean King, who turns 60 later this month, was honored for her tenacious belief in the sport of women's tennis and her willingness to always, always work for the game she loved. King was one of nine women who signed a $1 contract in 1970 to barnstorm the world, proselytizing about the greatness of women's tennis, and she was one of 35 athletes locked in a London hotel room 30 years ago when the WTA was born.

Remembering the past, acknowledging history, paying respect to the fans who pay your salaries, isn't difficult. It might even be fun.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were rewarded for their attendance with sweet applause, some standing ovations, and the chance to hug each other and keep alive that string of stories.

"Billie Jean pulled me aside when I was 19," Evert said, "and told me I needed to be a leader, that I was going to learn the business of this tour, and that it was important that if I was going to be a top player I needed to be out front. She groomed me and she groomed Martina [Navratilova].

"I think it's important that each generation of player contributes something to the game and pushes it forward. I think Martina and I did with our rivalry and our willingness to let people know us."

That was a gentle needle to the no-shows. Navratilova and Evert often were publicly annoyed that Graf never warmed to the idea of taking a stand about anything involved with the politics of the WTA. They were frustrated Graf wasn't as receptive to their pleas as they had been to King's.

Evert suggested that the invitees should have had a "good excuse" for not showing up.

Pam Shriver, who was the emcee, ended the ceremony by making a pointed comment to the "present-day players," saying that "you are the caretakers of today's game." It is the job of these players, Shriver said, "to leave women's tennis in a better place just as these women did." Shriver gestured to King, Evert and Navratilova.

Navratilova lamented the absences, especially of the Williams sisters.

"It's too bad they didn't make it," Navratilova said. "They should have been here. These moments are special times, and I wish players would understand that a little better. But you have to make the effort first. Then you get it."

That "getting it" isn't always easy -- but almost always worthwhile.

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