The Associated Press
November 4, 2008 at 10:05 AM EST
DOHA — While Venus Williams often promotes women's equality in sport, the Wimbledon champion said her trip this week to the conservative Muslim sheikdom of Qatar is all about winning matches.
Williams is in the Middle East for the $4.5-million (U.S.) Sony Ericsson Championships, the WTA Tour's season-ending event that features the top eight players.
“I think us players are really focused on the tennis more than anything else,” Williams said. “I don't think anyone else is too focused on any other outside issue. We've been hosted very well, and that's pretty much it.”
Two years ago, Williams volunteered to promote gender equality and women's empowerment as part of a program by the WTA and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Funds were provided for mentoring, scholarship and fellowship programs, and tennis great Billie Jean King lent her support.
Women have fewer opportunities than men in sports and other fields in Qatar, which sent an all-male team to the Beijing Olympic this year. Saudi Arabia did the same, but several Arab countries that formerly excluded women relented — including Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
Williams, among the most vocal proponents of equal prize money in professional tennis, said Monday that the top players had not arrived in Qatar primarily to change perceptions about women.
“I think every country has their way of doing things. I don't think it's really our job to come here and tell everyone how to do things and to change mindsets,” said Williams, who faces No. 2 Dinara Safina in round-robin play Tuesday. “We are here to play great tennis and to be a good role model and as women to be entertainment. Anything else might be a little bit beyond our reach and influence.”
The younger Williams sister, Serena, is also a contender in Qatar. The U.S. Open champion said she had not met many women since her arrival.
“I can't sit here and comment on exactly the hardships of the female that happens in Qatar. I've heard some things I should say, rather, of females that happens in the Middle East,” Serena said at a news conference.
The Williams sisters, who have 16 Grand Slam titles between them, are Jehovah's Witnesses and have said they are not allowed to vote because of their religion. Serena noted the prominent place of women in the race for the U.S. presidency, though she did not name Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sarah Palin.
“I have always been a supporter of the betterment of women in general,” she said. “So I would like to just continue to see it grow around the globe. Where would we be without women?”