WIMBLEDON, England — With applause, a grown man said good-bye. And with controversy, a young girl said hello. It was one of those days at Wimbledon when you realize tennis, more than any other sport, forces its best to grow up hard, before our eyes, whether they like it or not.
First, the young girl with the controversy. There is always a young girl at Wimbledon, right? One year it’s Tracy Austin, another year it’s Jennifer Capriati or Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Anna Kournikova. All were teens when the hot glare of the spotlight hit them. Some squinted and marched on. Some were blinded.
Now comes 18-year-old Alexandra Stevenson, a tall, toothy teenager who a few weeks ago was graduating high school in San Diego, going to the prom, shopping in the mall. And here she was at Wimbledon on Wednesday, smashing a fearless forehand to stay alive against Lisa Raymond and, 35 minutes later, capturing the match with another fearless shot, this time a backhand winner.
It was impressive, innocent tennis, played without the over-thinking that sometimes sinks older players. And it put Stevenson in the quarterfinals. As a qualifier — the tennis equivalent of a chorus line stand-in — she has beaten four women here, including Amy Frazier and No. 11 seed Julie Halard-Decugis. She is now just three victories from the biggest prize in tennis — the Wimbledon crown — and she’s never even played here before.
By rights, this should be a pizza-with-everything-on-it moment, a total blast, a teenage kick. Instead, Stevenson came to her post-match press conference with a prepared statement. A prepared statement?
“In America, we have freedom of speech, as you do in England,” she read. “My mother merely expressed our family’s view of life…. It’s a shame some of the more sensational English newspapers reported her comments inaccurately.”
So much for pizza-with-everything.
Stevenson, who has a black father and a white mother, has had more controversy in the last 10 days than some players see in a year. First, there was the question of her status. When reports surfaced that Wimbledon officials considered her an amateur and therefore not entitled to prize money, her mother took loud offense. “We will get an attorney,” she threatened.
Wimbledon relented. Alexandra will get her money, which stands so far at more than 50,000 British pounds (about $80,000). As it turns out, money is the least of Alexandra’s problems.
Of bigger concern is the comments her mother made in a newspaper here over the weekend. They charged the women’s tour with racism and lesbianism.
Samantha Stevenson, who herself is a freelance sports journalist, claimed last year, on the circuit, “Alexandra was called a nigger by a player on the court.” She added that women’s tennis is rife with lesbianism, which makes it
“a jungle” for youngsters like her daughter, who is “a real feminine girl and doesn’t need the bitterness some of these women have.”
Whoo, boy. And that still was not the worst part.
The worst part was the rehashing of a rumor that Alexandra’s father is basketball star Julius (Doctor J) Erving. Erving recently denied this. But a Florida newspaper reported Wednesday that the name “Julius Winfield Erving II” is on Alexandra’s birth certificate. Although Alexandra is of mixed race and stands 6-feet-1, neither she nor her mother has publicly named Erving.
Which left it, of course, to the press.
“Is Julius Erving your father?” a reporter asked.
“I have no comment on that,” Alexandra said.
“Can you tell us about your father?”
“I have no comment on that.”
Folks, I’ve seen a lot of press conferences in my life. I can’t recall a stranger one than this.
Here was an otherwise bubbly teen, gushing over her advancement at Wimbledon, and she’s being asked “Who’s your Daddy?” by a group of strangers.
I recognize that she is a public figure now. And Erving is, too. But it doesn’t sit well with me, in a room full of reporters, to put an 18-year-old through a paternity quiz.
Maybe she doesn’t know. Maybe her mother doesn’t want her to know. Maybe they’re protecting someone else. The journalist in me says it’s newsworthy. The human being in me asks, why?
“My mother has always been my father figure,” Stevenson said. And moments later, she was back to teen-speak, laughing and rattling off parts she’d had in school plays, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Pajama Game.”
You have to shake your head. Such a young girl, already being peppered about racism, lesbianism, money, who her father is — then telling you about her role in “Guys and Dolls” in 10th grade.
It’s all part of this strange youthful drama called pro tennis. As she left the room, Alexandra almost bumped into Boris Becker. Becker had just lost in the fourth round to Patrick Rafter, ending — for real, this time, he says — his long and triumphant run at Wimbledon. Boris is 31. He won this tournament, for the first time, at 17.
“It has been a love affair,” he said. “It made me who I am. It gave me the chance to do everything I want to do with my life.”
Earlier, as he’d left the court, Becker got a standing ovation from the crowd and the Royal Box. It is as high a compliment as Wimbledon offers, and Becker summed it all up in two words: “No regrets.”
We can only hope Wimbledon will be that kind to Stevenson, and she one day will be able to say the same.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM