Sunday, September 13, 2009

Serena Melts Down

What had been a mostly uneventful professional tennis season ended abruptly last night when Serena Williams foot faulted and was penalized out of the quarterfinals after a very unfortunate incident with a lines woman. It was late in the second set and Serena was trailing Kim Clijsters 6-3, 5-4 and down 15-30. That means that she was two points away from losing the quarterfinals to Kim.

Serena served and apparently stepped on the back line. The lines woman called the foot fault causing Serena to lose one point and giving Kim a huge advantage. Serena stalked over to the lines woman yelling something and shaking a ball at her. Serena returned to the serving line and started to serve, but then turned around and marched over to the lines woman a second time berating her. At that point, the referee called the lines woman to her chair and inquired as to what Serena had said. More words ensued and the Head Referee and a tournament official came on the court and ruled that Serena's behavior merited the loss of a point. That point was the winning match point and Clijsters won.

Apparently there is not a good enough angle to definitively show the foot fault. To me, it looks like she did, but there is certainly room for discussion. But, and this is a big but, the lines woman ruled. In tennis, referees and lines people are the law. They are situated on the court in such a way that they only look straight down a line and they are not supposed to watch the play - only their line. Their job is to watch carefully and decide instantly if a ball is in, out or on the line. In this case she needed to decide if Serena's foot touched the line at all. Just as we have to follow the law in life, tennis players have to follow the ruling of the judges.

Pretty much everyone agrees that it was an unfortunate incident, but interestingly enough not for all the same reasons. The pundits [did you think they only worked in politics?] are divided on whether or not she actually faulted. Those who think that she did step on the line are also divided on whether or not it was proper for the lines woman to call it. Many think that so late in the match, the lines woman should have let it go. What kind of message would that have sent? That pros who are on the verge of losing (or even winning) a match should not have to follow the rules? Or, that the rule is only for club players and pros get a pass? Neither would have been a good lesson.

More disturbing to me was Serena's behavior. She had a warning at the end of the first set for breaking her racquet in anger, so it was already not a good night for her. Obviously she was upset to be losing, and she had not played her best tennis during the match. But, one does not get a pass on civil behavior because things are not going well. She apparently used some bad language which was not picked up by the live feed. In defending herself to the Head Referee she clearly said, "other people said a lot worse," so she knew she said something inappropriate. She also approached the lines woman in a very menacing way waving her racquet. It did not help the situation that the lines woman was of Asian descent and quite small. The image of Serena at 5'9" and 150 pounds advancing on the lines woman at 4'11" and 90 pounds was compelling, and anyone who sees it would have to think the lines woman felt intimidated.

And, of course, the other loser in this situation was Kim Clijsters. She was playing excellent tennis and probably would have won the match, but she did not get the opportunity to win, or to enjoy the win. Even if she wins the finals tonight, there will always be an invisible asterisk on the match. Apparently they are good friends and Kim was obviously not happy with the way the match ended - even tho it was in her favor.

When my brother was about five he would play and play and play until he was so exhausted that he would completely come apart. After some sleep he would admit to having had what he called a meltdown. Many have described Serena's behavior that way, too. No doubt after two weeks of good, hard, competitive tennis she is tired - both physically and mentally. But it's part of being a professional. Pam Shriver described it best when she said that it's the player's responsibility to keep in control and maintain one's calm to play. Serena failed that test last night.

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