September 12, 2011

Thoughts on Serena Williams

If you missed it, Serena Williams got into another issue at the US Open today.

Down a set, serving in the first game of the second, Serena gets down 15-30 after a couple of good shots from Sam Stosur. On the next point, Serena hits a great forehand down the line toward Stosur's backhand. Against most players, it would've been a clean winner, but Stosur is able to get a racket on the ball, knocking it away toward the stands.

The problem came when Serena yelled 'Come on!' before Stosur got to the ball.

When I saw the point live, I thought it was at least poor form and probably against the rules for Serena to yell before the shot was, indeed, an actual winner. I don't think Williams had any intent to distract Stosur or to cause an intentional hindrance. She just was trying to get herself going after losing a surprising first set 6-2 and being in danger of going down an early second set break.

But Serena yelled - not grunted, not exhaled, not whatever - while the ball was still in play.

The chair umpire awarded the point to Stosur, and Serena wasn't pleased. She voices her displeasure at the umpire and has the crowd on her side.

John McEnroe says Serena shouldn't have been penalized the point, that the point should have been a let (a replay). I have a problem with that solution because it would have been a let due to intentional behavior from one of the players (Serena Williams). It's one thing when a player does something accidentally leading to a let (a ball drops out of a pocket, a hat falls off, whatever), but when the player intentionally causes something that would otherwise lead to the let, the player loses that point. McEnroe likens this to a player on the free throw lane talking to the shooter, an offensive lineman yelling at the quarterback while he's passing.

McEnroe is wrong.

Here's the exact wording of rule #26 - on Hindrance - from the International Tennis Federation (page 12 here): (emphasis added by me)
If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

In those sports, there is little if any expectation for quiet during the play. Whether we like it or not, the expectation is tennis is that there will be quiet during the play and that players will not speak to each other during the course of the match - between points, perhaps, but not during the points. Chair umps ask the crowd to be quiet, remind people not to blurt out during points, and hold play until their expectation is met.

When the crowd cheered in support of Serena, they had the right to, but they were cheering against a chair umpire who made the correct call. For a brief moment Serena Williams had the sympathy of the crowd, and then she went further and further wrong. Serena won the first point of the next game, walked toward the chair ump, and screamed at the chair umpire.

Rare is the champion athlete who can succeed when their head isn't in the game. Rare is the athlete who can use anger and frustration and channel it into anything productive. Serena isn't that athlete.

Williams continued to yell at the umpire for the next couple of games, throughout the change overs. From her seat beside the umpire's chair, Serena told the umpire to not even look at her, the she was allowed to speak because 'we're in America...If you're ever walking down the hallway with me, you better (walk/look) the other way."

Serena is the greatest tennis player of this generation, having won thirteen grand slam titles (the sixth most of all time - behind Evert and Navratilova, both with eighteen,) easily outpacing her sister with seven - the next most of any active player. She is, however, an ungraceful champion, one whose record will be blemished with her actions at the US Open two years ago that, admittedly, make today's outbursts look very minor.

For whatever reason - foot injury, tiredness after playing yesterday, lack of match fitness after a medically tough year - Serena was not playing her best match today, and instead of fighting through this, Serena let her frustrations build up until they got the better of her and she showed the poorer side of her personality.

In the end the tempest didn't really matter, providing only a momentary distraction from Sam Stosur's first grand slam tournament title. Stosur played well today and earned her victory. Serena Williams is, thankfully, being graceful in her post-match interviews, but she didn't comport herself well today, and we're the poorer for that.

Update: When I'd initially written this, I included that Serena was given a point penalty for verbal abuse of the umpire. I wrote this because I'd read it online in looking up the exact words Serena spoke to the chair ump. One person on Twitter reported the point penalty, but I didn't remember seeing that when I watched the match, so I avoided it. Looks like there wasn't a point penalty but that the USTA does consider Serena to have verbally abused the chair ump and released a statement to that effect after the match. Remember, folks, that Serena is technically still on probation for her incident two years ago in the US Open final.


Bubba8294 said...

Player conduct that is allowed and commonly seen in a number of spectator sports is not allowed in professional tennis.

Ame said...

Serena has long been known to have never played USTA junior tourneys growing up... maybe that would have taught her how to behave. She is one of my least favorite players and this is just one example of why.

PHSChemGuy said...

Bubba - Tennis is far more gentlemanly...or womanly.

Ame - She's a poop.