Thursday, February 22, 2007

A True Superstar

Venus Williams brings her game and her smile to the Racquet Club.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Hey Grizzlies, about that new owner and front person you're looking for. There's someone in Memphis this week who's got the money, plus world-class athletic ability, a great smile, and fan appeal that cuts across racial and age lines.

The only problem is her game is tennis, not basketball, and she'll be outta here Sunday, if not before. But Venus Williams has already earned her appearance money and then some by filling the Racquet Club on a Monday night and reminding the estimated 5,000 people what true stars are all about.

Racquet Club owner Mac Winker was the happiest man in Memphis when Williams closed out a close three-set win over journeyman player Akiko Morigami. Winker said he hadn't seen anything like it since Jimmy Connors played here 20 years ago. The man standing next to him agreed -- he was John Connors, Jimmy's older brother, a tennis teacher in Illinois here to take in the first few days of the tournament.

"The atmosphere was like a prizefight," said Winker.

During several long rallies in which Morigami ran down ball after ball, fans cheered before the point was over, a violation of tennis etiquette that drew a warning from the chair umpire. But the scolding was perfunctory -- imagine fans getting so wound up that they break out in cheers and gasps -- and the players didn't seem to mind. In the post-match press conference, Morigami said it was "cool" to play Williams for the first time, and Williams described the crowd response as "awesome."

Williams is coming off an injury and hadn't played for four months. As rangy as her sister Serena is muscular, she is all business on the court and doesn't play to the crowd with Connors-like fist pumps, tantrums, or jokes. Her famous father was in the courtside players' box but disappeared during the second set before returning for the finish. Williams said she only looks at her father's box in the last game.

She won the first set easily but faltered in the second set as her serve deserted her and Morigami smacked two-handed winners off her forehand and backhand. In first-round matches involving headliners, there is always a fine line between a thriller in which the star is tested and a disaster in which the star gets beat. The latter has happened many times over the 30 years of the tournament, and attendance can fall off the table without an Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, or Roddick in the final rounds. To lose Williams would have been even worse, because she is by far the best player ever to enter the women's field in the relatively short history of that event.

click to enlarge John Ford - (AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY, FILE)
  • (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
  • John Ford

With Williams serving at 5-4 in the third set, it still looked like that might happen again. On the first point, she caught her first service toss, then her second. Would her serve desert her again? No. She hit a 108-mph winner, then followed it up with three more first serves topping out at 114 mph to take the match.

Only then did she acknowledge the crowd and the shouts of "V" with a wave and a huge smile. She happily knocked four souvenir balls into the stands. Then she gathered her gear and walked a double rope-line of picture-taking fans, smiling and slapping palms all the way to the locker room. Fan interaction is the most underrated play in sports. Pete Sampras walked off this same court without so much as a wave after losing one year, and John McEnroe all but sunk the seniors tournament at the Racquet Club last year with his cursing and tantrums. Williams, for whatever reason, gave the crowd what it wanted: the illusion that she is both somehow like us and likes us.

"Hello," she said simply, as she sat down in the interview room promptly at 9 p.m., as advertised. Then she smiled and laughed her way through 15 minutes of questions, allowing that, no, her wrist didn't bother her, and, yes, she does feel like an advocate for the game in Memphis, where hundreds of people probably made their first visit to the Racquet Club. "I'm pretty much going for it the whole time," she said.

If only we could keep her.

It Came from Outer Space

A rare Rolex watch with pieces of a meteorite in it took center stage Tuesday in a hearing in federal court on former Senator John Ford's political corruption case.

Federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza told U.S. district judge Daniel Breen that Ford got the watch from Memphis developer Rusty Hyneman for helping him in a state environmental matter. The government wants to use the watch as evidence when Ford goes on trial in April. Breen was expected to rule Tuesday after the Flyer went to press.

FBI agent Mark Jackson took the stand to explain how the government learned about the watch. Jackson said that while the government's undercover company, E-Cycle Management, was paying Ford $5,000 a month in 2004, agents learned about the watch in secretly recorded conversations.

Tapes were played in the courtroom Tuesday on which Ford says, "I did him a favor," referring to Hyneman. Ford brags to the undercover FBI agent that the watch is worth $50,000 and "I paid zero." Ford says on tape that he "saved the fucker $1.3 million" and later on in the conversation he changes that to $1.5 million.

When Ford was arrested in May 2005, he was wearing the watch, and FBI agents seized it. Ford later asked to get the watch back and denied getting it for doing a favor for Hyneman. The FBI, however, kept the watch and recently determined that its true value is $46,800 and is, in fact, an extremely rare watch that, according to the maker, has pieces of meteorite in it.

Hyneman was outside the courtroom in the witness room under subpoena by the government but had not testified as of press time.

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