Sunday, August 17, 2008

Venus Williams comes to Iowa!

My encounters with professional tennis athletes usually occur in the mixed zone; called so because it is the first area (“zone”, if you will) in which athletes “mix” with the press after a sporting event, you can correctly assume that it is filled with reporters trying to grab a few quotes from the player of choice. It’s the classic high-stress environment that non-journalists always imagine for sports journalists: It can be an impersonal, no drooling over Rafael Nadal’s left arm or asking for an autograph atmosphere. Notebook pages flip across the metal spirals as pens race over the light blue lines. Recorders seem to jump out of pockets, journalists who didn’t get a chance to fight their way to the front of the mixed zone hand their recorder to friends from other media agencies who did wiggle to the front to hold out. All the while, the print journalists are careful not to trip over the long wires that the broadcasters are lugging behind their equipment as they walk alongside the player on the opposite side of the white metal gate which divides media from athlete. With all the lights flooding from broadcast cameras and the occasional flashing camera, the scene is visually intimidating. However, it’s the aural aspect that is the most intense. The only sound throughout the hallway is the voice of the lucky reporter who got the athlete to stop to talk, followed by the anticipated answer. Getting the golden quote from the athlete before they wave their hand and say, “That’s it today, thanks!” is essential.

It’s a short-lived hype; within one minute, the athlete is gone and the journalists have returned to the media offices to insert the fresh quotes into the article they finished before the match was even over.

While some athletes legitimately enjoy talking to the media spew excellent quotes for a good five minutes or speak in multiple languages for multiple agencies, being in the shark frenzy that is the mixed zone has the potential to frustrate even the most dedication fan or zealous journalist.

Unless they’ve been doing it for 36 years.

My friend and supervisor at the Olympic Tennis Green Center, Sandra Harwitt, has a long-running rapoire with many professional tennis players, including Serena and Venus Williams. Immediately following their press conference after they won the gold medal in women's doubles Friday, my colleagues and I were hanging out in the office, talking about how cool it would be to be on a first name basis with the Williams sisters like Sandra has been for years. My roommate and I also joked about some of the more creative and unusual questions asked of the Williams’ during the press conference. For example, one of the questions flowed, "You have a lot of fans in Morocco. Will you ever go to Morocco to see them?" we turned into, "You have a lot of fans in Iowa. Will you ever come to Iowa?" followed by laughter.

As soon as we chuckled about Venus Williams coming to Iowa, into the office walks Sandra, wearing a large smile. Following her into our office was Venus Williams.

Sandra introduced us to her, and we tried not to let our jaws drop. It was such a different from the crowded mixed zone—there were only a handful of people around, no cameras, no notebooks, no recording devices. There wasn’t even a divider separating us. Venus wore her hair back in a tight pony tail and was still wearing the outfit she and Serena had won in; they hadn’t received their medals yet, so she was still wearing her athlete accreditation. It was such a change from the Venus I had seen in the mixed zone who was always in a hurry. The ever-poised, yet surprisingly shy, Venus gave us a wave, told us it was nice to meet us, and apologized for not always stopping to talk to us in the mixed zone, admitting that with all the media hype, she’s been “jaded”.

Before Venus left, we gave her a pin from the University of Iowa (pin trading is a big deal at the Olympics). Unfortunately, the Olympic Tennis Event is over, so Venus will no longer be wearing her accreditation with the pin-laden lanyard. But you can bet I will be looking for that round black pin with a golden dome on it on her 2012 Games lanyard.

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