Chris Rattue: Glamour of superstars mocks moralists

Tiger Woods and Serena Williams have undeniable pulling power which goes beyond their misbehaviour, says Chris Rattue.
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The Independent Online

The Australian Tennis Open is almost upon us, an especially exciting time in the sporting calendar because world-class events are few and far between down under.

And no prizes for guessing who has grabbed the early publicity: Serena Williams's arrival at Sydney Airport caused quite a fuss and the press is hanging on her every word.

The Grand Slam Committee sure knew what it was doing fining Williams, rather than imposing an immediate suspension, after her outburst against a lineswoman at the US Open. Williams fired a weird volley of abuse at the US Open official - who had made a bizarre foot-fault call against her - threatening to shove a tennis ball down her throat.

The world descended angrily upon Williams, with inevitable calls that she be thrown out of Grand Slams as a punishment. Instead, she received a big fine (a drop in the ocean by her income levels) and a suspended suspension. Williams, who may even have been shocked at her own behaviour, has been suitably contrite and you would doubt that such an incident will occur again.

The tennis committee made a fair call and it also probably knew what golf is finding out, and what is also starting to dawn on cricket, that the superstars of world sport - the Pied Pipers who attract both the crowds and the money - have a power that cannot be ignored.

There were inevitable demands for Williams to be sidelined from the major tennis tournaments but these are calls far easier to make from the safety of the stands, when you aren't in charge and don't have commercial imperatives to contend with.

It's not as if Williams had a history of such behaviour either. What happened at Flushing Meadows was a strange moment in time, a bizarre flashpoint that needed to be left where it was, rather than something that would build upon itself and hurt tennis through Williams' expulsion, which might also have affected her long-term desire to play.

You can bet your bottom dollar that as the drama unfolded, the organisers of the Australian Open were praying a giant bucket of cold water was not about to be poured over their tournament in the Melbourne heat. The Australian Open needs Serena Williams, whose superstardom transcends tennis and is even more vital in the women's game right now because the standard is so low. Without Williams, the X-factor in women's tennis is B-grade.

Golf also desperately needs Tiger Woods, sex scandal and all. The game is in danger of going the same way as a stream of cocktail waitresses if he doesn't get back soon.

This is just a personal view, but I have no interest in Woods' sex life, or the wealth and happiness of his spurned wife, Elin Nordegren. Call me callous, but I just don't care about the woman. We have never met. She lives thousands of kilometres away, and is well fed and able to live a good life.

And who cares if his caddy Steve Williams knew all about the extramarital shagging or didn't know all about it? Yet the way some people have gone on about it, you'd think we were dealing with another Watergate.

Woods' demeanour and behaviour on the course were never particularly impressive, which was always disappointing, but anyone who can play a sport that well will always be compelling and that's why people watched him religiously and why many won't watch nearly so much golf if he isn't playing. What does matter is the effect of the scandal on his game, and this will be a major topic once he returns.

Tiger Woods created a whole new golf world, and one which is badly askew, even empty, without him.

Woods' ability to play golf is what actually counts and, without making any moral judgment, rampant sexual behaviour by married sports superstars is par for the course anyway. Magic Johnson didn't get the HIV virus off a toilet seat, folks.

The corporate and consumer sob stories of those who apparently felt betrayed by Woods' family-man image should be drowned in the tears. So advertising involves porkies - what a shock. There are far more damaging advertising falsehoods out there, perpetuated by the food and pharmaceutical industries, that really do affect peoples' lives.

Woods is a phenomenon, and he is so because of the standard of his game.

Jack Nicklaus, the finest golfer in history before Woods challenged his position, was wrong when he reckoned over the weekend that Woods isn't bigger than golf.

To lean on this bland cliche, as Nicklaus did, does not even get close to the real situation, in which golf was taken to new levels of interest and commercialism by one man who virtually perfected a sport of maddening difficulties.

Think back to the most memorable major tussles of the past decade and you quickly recall Tiger versus Bob May, Tiger versus Rocco Mediate, Tiger versus Y.E. Yang, Tiger versus the world.

Tiger Woods is so good there are legitimate claims that at times, his highly trained and skilled opponents simply surrendered to his will and skill.

Woods has amassed 14 majors. Fourteen. The next best, Phil Mickelson, has three, and Sergio Garcia - formerly the superstar-in-waiting - has grown well past his wonderboy status without winning one. Now golf is trying to pump up the Irish mop-top Rory McIlroy as the next superstar. Good luck, lads.

Woods is bigger than golf all right, as golf is finding out, and a lot of us who just don't care about who shagged whom can't wait for the man to get back. He's unlikely to face the music from the galleries either, or not for long, and you sense the masses are getting bored with the supposedly exciting details. The initial adrenaline rush of something totally unexpected has long gone.

Whatever the image makers might try to tell the rest of us, we, the public, are mainly delighted to have Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and Co back among us, lighting up the screen.

They are not criminals, or threats to civilisation, but merely people with personality strengths and foibles who deal with stresses and strains, joy and disappointment.

None of us are perfect, and while we are all drawn to a good controversy, in the long run the masses are never as judgmental as advertisers fear and some commentators make out. Many of sport's worst scallywags, from snooker's Alex Higgins to tennis brat John McEnroe, invite extreme responses and are as much loved as supposedly reviled.

There is also a laughable irony in watching corporate America get cold feet over one man's rumpy-pumpy, considering the way their self-centred ethos and lack of ethics ravaged the world's economy.

How brilliant to see Serena Williams in Australia, ready for Open action. Hopefully, Tiger Woods will also make a successful landing back on the golf course this year.

Sourced from: The New Zealand Herald