Venus Envy

The Book of the Week is “Venus Envy” by L. Jon Wertheim, published in 2002. This book describes the colorful characters that graced women’s professional tennis in 1999, 2000 and 2001.  Those included the Williams sisters, Hingis, Davenport, Pierce, Capriati, Kournikova, Sanchez-Vicario and others.

Most tennis players who become professionals are pressured by a parent to make playing a career. Venus and Serena Williams’ father Richard filled that role. He had the promotional instincts of Don King. In the mid-1990’s, when his older daughter had just turned pro at the young age of fourteen, he predicted that both his daughters would play each other in Grand Slam finals. Most people thought, “This wasn’t a tennis father from hell. This was a tennis father from outer space.” He knew what he was talking about. Not only did he guide them to success, but did so without making them crazy, unlike so many other tennis parents who cause their kids psychological harm.

Tennis is a typical professional sport in that making money is the major goal. Tennis’ authoritative bodies that hold global tournaments, have a history of awarding less prize money to the women than to the men. The purported reason is that the women are less entertaining. This led to an interesting course of events in the early 1970’s.

The women also get treated differently at post-tournament press conferences, at which they are asked personal questions that men would never be asked. Another cause for complaints from the women is that the quirky ranking system awards more money to some players who have more entertainment value than playing ability. The system “unfairly punishes older, less attractive players.”

Read the book to learn more about why women’s tennis is the “world’s most popular and financially successful women’s sport.”

To the Heart of the Nile

The Book of the Week is “To the Heart of the Nile” by Pat Shipman, published in 2004. In the 1840’s, when a little girl, later named Florence, was orphaned by revolution in the land that is now Hungary, she was sent to live in a harem.

By a strange twist of fate, Florence, with an Englishman, Sam, (with a retinue of servants) ended up going on expeditions in what is now Egypt and the Sudan to find the sources of the Nile, and stop the slave trade. They “made detailed observations on the climate, the terrain, the people, the animals and the plants,” all the while braving disease, near-starvation and tribal warfare. That last life-threatening condition required delicate negotiations with a tribal chief.

On one occasion, Sam gamed the situation correctly. He boldly “ordered his headman to raise the Union Jack… Sam asked these delegates [officials of the enemy tribes] how they dared to invade a country [the Sudan] under the protection of the British flag.” They obeyed his order to evacuate the area. The tribal chief who was allied with Sam “was awestruck by the power of Sam’s magical flag and… rewarded Sam with huge quantities of [smuggled] ivory.”

Sam refused to accept the ivory, as he was disinclined to tarnish his reputation with criminal and morally reprehensible pursuits.  He was more interested in exploration and annexing the Sudan for the United Kingdom.

Read the book to the learn the outcomes of Sam’s and Florence’s adventures.