September 13, 2009

Ladies & Gentlemen, Please!

Okay, so there were plenty of factors that could have contributed to Serena Williams' frustration today.

The defending U.S. Open champion was supposed to play her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters yesterday, but the first drops of rain to foul up the year's last Grand Slam came at a bad time and forced tournament officials to reschedule the few matches left this weekend.

Serena probably expected to finish up her match much earlier today, but a very persistent misting suspended play some time around 1:30 p.m. and didn't allow the women to take the court until after nine.

When they did, there was a much smaller crowd than you'd expect for most Major semis -- and last year's trophy-holder was playing to a more depleted audience than she's used to.

And to top things off, she found herself well outplayed by a woman who'd been absent from the Tour for two years, retiring at the ripe old age of twenty-three to get married and have a child. Serena was broken at 4-5, giving the first set to Clijsters are slammed her racquet to the ground in anger, earning her first code violation of the night.

Unfortunately the second violation, like the rain, also came at an unfortunate time, when Serena was down 15-30 while serving at 5-6 in the second set. She was (probably wrongly) called on a foot fault that would have given her opponent double match point. That was bad enough.

But instead of composing herself, as she seemed to initially do by taking a deep breath at the baseline, she went off on the lines woman, screaming about how she would shove a (expletive) tennis ball down her (expletive) throat. After a meeting of the minds, tournament referee Brian Earley docked Serena a penalty point which, given the score at the time, also meant Kim won the game, the set and the match.

To her credit, Serena seemed to have calmed her nerves by the time she held her press conference almost immediately after the match ended. She was smiling and had some perspective on what had happened, admitting that there was nothing she could do about a penalty on match point. But I wonder what was going on in her head -- it's hard to believe she could be so out of control on the court and so together just minutes later. It was actually kind of surreal.

It's a shame, too, that such an important match in a Grand Slam had to be decided that way. I understand that rules are rules, but even accounting for the second violation, the point from the erroneous foot fault call should have been given back to Serena. They could have played that one extra point to let Clijsters earn the match she'd been working so hard for all evening.

Of course there have been other controversies in tennis. Ironically, during the rain delay CBS was showing Jimmy Connors' fourth round against Aaron Krickstein from 1991, in which he lost it when a chair umpire called his ball out in the second set, but went on to win the match in five. In her press conference after the loss, Serena acknowledged that many other players have gotten away with a lot worse:

"There have been a lot of things out there, a lot of arguments in the past. And, you know, they unfortunately ‑‑ well, fortunately didn't lose the match."

It's not that I'm taking Williams' side -- she was clearly out of line -- but it's rough that she had to lose on a violation. Neither the fans nor Kim were happy with the outcome. But in the end someone has to keep a semblance of decorum -- if not the players, then at least the officials. This is the gentleman's sport, after all, and Serena's response after the fault was clearly unbecoming of an eleven-time winner, whether it was on or off the court.

And as a friend pointed out after the game, there's a difference between a champion and someone who just wins a lot.

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