"If I could, I would take this ... ball and shove it down your ... throat."
--SerenaWilliams, in the heat of battle at the U.S. Open.
This tirade has been seen thousands of times on YouTube. This meltdown was unacceptable. It was totally out of line and inappropriate. All tennis players, established and aspiring, young and old, amateur and professional are watching. Everyone wants to see where the boundaries are set, where the limits of bad behavior lie.
On Saturday night, in the midst of a tense second set in the women’s semi-finals of the U. S. Open against Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams was called for her second foot fault of the match on a second serve at 5-6, 15-30. Defending champion Williams then walked toward the line judge, screaming, cursing and shaking a ball in the official's direction, threatening to "shove it down" her throat. Williams was penalized a point for unsportsmanlike conduct that gave a 6-4, 7-5 upset victory to unseeded, unranked Kim Clijsters.
When Williams was through yelling, Engzell called the linesperson to the chair. Following a brief chat, Engzell requested that tournament referee Brian Earley come onto the court.
Another discussion ensued, with Williams joining the mix. In the end, Williams was called for her second code violation of the match – this time for unsportsmanlike conduct. As tennis rules dictate, a player’s second code violation is a point penalty.
Since Williams’ point penalty came with the Williams serving at 15-40, the game was awarded to Clijsters. And since Clijsters led by a set and 6-5 at the time, the match was hers.
The U.S. Open officials who have earlier fined Serena for $500 for racket abuse in the same match, reporterd fine her $10,000 and gave indications that further penalties may be imposed on the player after the investigation over the entire incident is over.
“The grand slam rule book allows for an investigation to be conducted by the grand slam committee administrator to determine if the behavior of Ms Williams warrants consideration as a major offence, for which additional penalties can be imposed. This investigation has just now begun,” said referee Brian Earley in a statement.
Reports say that the WTA tour chief Stacey Allaster had reportedly termed Serena Williams’ behavior as both “inappropriate and unprofessional”. John McEnroe, reportedly said that Serena should be suspended for breaching the code of conduct. It had been reported that Williams had reportedly refused to apologize. She seemed quite unrepentant.
However, later, in a statement released by Serena, the player has reportedly said that she should have kept her cool during the altercation.
“Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience.”
--Serena Williams, in an apology.
Right after the match, Serena was in denial.
“I haven't been called for a foot fault all year until I got to New York, so maybe when I come to this tournament I have to step two feet back,” said Williams, whose first foot fault was called by a different linesperson in the sixth game of the second set.
“Kim played really well, and I think she came out with a really big plan,” said Williams. “I think that the next time we play I'll know a little bit more about her game, what to expect, and what to do.”
About 20 minutes following her tirade, a composed Williams said she likely foot-faulted.
“I'm pretty sure I did,” said Williams. “If she called a foot fault, she must have seen a foot fault. She was doing her job. I'm not going to knock her for not doing her job.
After the match, Williams did not acknowledge her poor sportsmanship. Asked in her postmatch news conference what she said to the line judge, Williams wouldn't say, replying, "What did I say? You didn't hear?"
Williams also minimized the incident. "I've never been in a fight in my whole life, so I don't know why she would have felt threatened," Williams said with a smile.
The line judge went over to the chair umpire, along with tournament referee Brian Earley. Williams then went over and said to the line judge: "Sorry, but there are a lot of people who've said way worse." Then the line judge said something to the chair umpire, and Williams responded, "I didn't say I would kill you. Are you serious? I didn't say that." The line judge replied by shaking her head and saying, "Yes."
Williams already had been give a code violation warning when she broke her racket after losing the first set. So the chair umpire now awarded a penalty point to Clijsters, ending the match.
"She was called for a foot fault, and a point later, she said something to a line umpire, and it was reported to the chair, and that resulted in a point penalty," Earley explained. "And it just happened that point penalty was match point. It was a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct."
When the ruling was announced, Williams walked around the net to the other end of the court to shake hands with a stunned Clijsters, who did not appear to understand what had happened.
"I used to have a real temper, and I've gotten a lot better," Williams said later. "So I know you don't believe me, but I used to be worse. Yes, yes, indeed." Really? Worse than this? Really?
Serena also overshadowed and tarnished the achievements of Clijsters. In only her third tournament back after 2 1/2 years in retirement, the 26-year-old Belgian became the first mother to reach a Grand Slam final since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon 1980.
“I never really expected to be beating Venus and beating Serena,” said Clijsters, who upset Serena’s sister, Venus , in the fourth round. “You try and you try to bring your best tennis, but you don't expect things to be going this well this soon.
“That's why I, knock on wood, just try to stay focused and not lose my rhythm that I've been having over these last two-and-a-half, almost three weeks that we've been here. Just trying to keep that going until the whole tournament is finished.”
"The normal feelings of winning a match weren't quite there," Clijsters said. "But I think afterwards, when everything kind of sunk in a little bit and got explained to me about what happened, yeah, you kind of have to put it all in place, and then it becomes a little bit easier to understand and to kind of not celebrate, but at least have a little bit of joy after a match like that."
Clijsters hadn't competed at the U.S. Open since winning the 2005 championship. Williams came into the day having won three of the past four Grand Slam titles, and 30 of her previous 31 matches at major tournaments.
One could see this meltdown coming. When Williams hit backhands into the net on consecutive points at 5-4 in the first set, Clijsters had broken her for the second time and taken the opening set. Upset, the American bounced her racket, caught it, then cracked it against the blue court, damaging the entire frame.
When Williams walked to the changeover, she clanged it against the net post and was given a warning for racket abuse by the chair umpire.
That would prove costly at match's end.
"I mean, the timing is unfortunate, you know," Clijsters said. "To get a point penalty at the time, it's unfortunate. But there are rules, and you know, like I said, it's just unfortunate that it has to happen on a match point."
Simply put, this is an ugly incident that tarnishes what should have been a special match and championship for Kim Clijsters and, thus far, remarkable career of Serena Williams. Serena has lost a championship and the respect of many. The U.S. Open organizers and the WTA officials should come down hard on Serena to ensure that others are not tempted to berate an official and to send a strong message to all elite athletes about their increasing boorish behavior.
Serena, the way to move forward from this and learn is to acknowledge the behavior and suffer the consequences, real consequences, not just a slap on the wrist. Everyone, let’s take this opportunity to take the high road.
For more on bad behavior and sports, click on Cheating and Bad Behavior.