She’s Back!

by on November 13th, 2014
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This week Serena Williams will be making her first appearance at the Billie-Jean King National Tennis Center since her 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters which resulted in an incident few tennis fans will ever forget.

The then defending Champion was serving at 4-6 5-6 15-30 when a foot fault was called on her second serve, giving Kim Clijsters two match points.

With her racket outstretched, Serena, who had been given a code violation earlier in the match for racket abuse, proceeding to launch into tirade of abuse directed towards the shocked and surprised lineswoman.

At the time I was working as a sports logger for CNN, watching the match and helping compile highlights when suddenly my desk became the central focus of an international developing story.

There was no clear audio of what was being said, so it was my job to replay, slow down, and try to lip-read Serena’s outburst.

“I’m… going… to… ram… this… f#@&ing… ball… down… your… f#@&ing… throat!”

Oh dear.

The lineswoman was asked to approach umpire Louise Engzell to recount the incident, causing tournament referee Brian Earley to report to the court.

The lineswoman told the referee that Miss Williams had threatened to kill her, to which microphones recorded Serena replying “I never said I would kill you, are you serious?”

From what I could infer from my lip-reading transcription, Serena was technically correct. However, as many noted then and since, the insertion of a tennis ball into someone’s throat might just do the job.

The resulting action, contrary to popular belief was not a disqualification, but a simple point penalty. It just so happens that being at match point, a point penalty was as good as a DQ.

Serena crossed the net to shake hands with a confused and stunned Kim Clijsters before waving to the crowd and exiting through the tunnel.

When asked in her post-match press conference to speak on the event, she responded, “I don’t think that’s necessary for me to speak about that. I’ve let it go,” Williams continued without an air of contrition. “I didn’t threaten [her]. I didn’t say…I don’t remember anymore, to be honest. I was in the moment. And, you know, everyone’s fighting for every point. It was a really crucial point, 15-30, actually.”

Well, that makes it ok then.

When a follow-up asked if she felt the linesperson deserved an apology, Williams was emphatic. “An apology? From me? Well, how many people yell at lines people?” She continued, “If you look at all the people that kind of yell at lines people, I think it kind of comes sometimes. Players, athletes get frustrated. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that happen.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s ok to shout at people just because others do. How many times have we seen that happen? Hundreds, thousands?

Actually, now I think about it, never.

This was, in my opinion, the most disgusting behavior I have ever seen in a sporting arena. Granted, John McEnroe had numerous temper tantrums directed at officials, each of which were inexcusable, but I don’t recall him ever making an actual physical threat in someone’s face.

Another one of tennis’ “bad boys” was Jeff Terango, who was once famously awarded back-to-back code violations for telling an umpire to “shut up”, and then saying out loud that the umpire was “one of the most corrupt officials in the game.” After his second code violation, Terango packed up his bags and walked off court. At the time, this was considered the height of bad behavior, but there’s a world of difference between calling someone corrupt and threatening their life.

What was worse was Serena’s following press conference, where she felt cheated for having foot-faults called on her rather than remorse for her ensuing behavior. “I’ve never been foot faulted [all year] and then suddenly in this tournament they keep calling foot faults. I’m not going to sit here and make an excuse. If I foot fault, I did. It is what it is and that’s basically all it was” she said.

When pushed if she regretted her actions, she simply added, “I haven’t really thought about it to have any regrets.”

In the subsequent two years, Serena has tried hard to rebrand herself as a humanitarian and general good person with her work in Africa and elsewhere, but the few moments of raw tyranny that exploded from her lips will forever be branded in my memory.

The real question is, what can we expect from the New York crowds?

New York is hardly known for its niceties and anyone who is overly sensitive to such behavior probably moved out of the city a long time ago. However, New York fans are also known for their fervent partisanship when it comes to supporting athletes. At the US Open, you’re either a Good Guy or a Bad Guy, and the crowd responds accordingly.

However, these classifications are generally awarded on country of origin and performance. Americans, are almost without exception, the Good Guys.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Andre Agassi was unquestionably the Bad Guy against Jimmy Connors back in 1998. “He’s a punk, you’re a legend!” a fan was heard to cry.

It is hard, however, to feel that Serena, as the lone true contender for an American singles victory, will receive anything less than complete ovation from a sporting crowd drenched in short-sighted patriotism.

However, the day after the event in question, Serena was back on court for the doubles final, and the crowd did boo. They didn’t boo much, and not for that long, but it was out there.

I’d be surprised if anyone Boo’s Serena this time, largely due to the two years that have passed, and partially because I’m not there to get things started, but I sure hope they do.

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