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Posted: Sunday September 13, 2009 5:37PM; Updated: Monday September 14, 2009 1:04PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

Serena deserved what she got

Story Highlights

The timing was unfortunate, but Serena Williams deserved her point penalty

Threatening a line judge like she did, no matter the circumstances, is inexcusable

The foot-fault call was shaky, but that doesn't justify Williams' profane response

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Serena Williams is good for tennis, but she lost a lot of fans with Saturday's outburst.
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2009 U.S. Open
Day 15
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NEW YORK -- Here it is the men's semifinals and all anyone wants to talk about is the end of Serena Williams' loss to Kim Clijsters on Saturday night. I keep seeing this referred to as a "controversy," but I struggle to see what exactly was controversial.

Serena slams her racket after losing the first set, gets warned. Serena gets called for a foot fault on a second serve at 4-5, 15-30 in the second set, an unfortunate time but, to use the defending champion's favorite phrase, "It is what it is." If officials are supposed to overlook infractions based on the juncture of the match, we're on slippery terrain. (Aside: Doesn't the technology exist to challenge foot faults?)

Serena loses it and makes profane, vile and, worst of all, threatening remarks. True, she has a track record of getting the short end of some questionable calls, and this call was shaky. But threatening to stick "this [expletive] ball down your [expletive] throat" while berating a line judge is so far beyond the pale that it's not even worth discussing. This was, simply, indefensible. Serena cools down and seems to realize she hasn't crossed the line so much as she's bounded over it. She receives a point penalty and loses the match, the correct ruling. Game, set, match.

There was nothing much to dispute here. One e-mailer intimated that this was a racist conspiracy. Ridiculous. Others wondered if Serena should be suspended. Equally ridiculous. (Until players are suspended for blatant in-match coaching -- which corrupts competition -- it's hard to lobby for suspension for cursing and threats. Even in terms of bad behavior, we've seen worse -- such as Anastasia Rodionova's firing a ball at spectators -- without suspension.)

Still, the questions have come fast and furious, and we aim to please:

Serena has always been a winner, but Serena will never be a great champion. Champions do not openly tank to players (as Serena admitted to doing against Elena Dementieva in Sydney this year); champions do not try only eight weeks a year (see Graf, Navratilova); champions play at a higher level than "10 percent" every time they lose; and champions certainly do not talk to a line judge the way she did in the Clijsters match. How, exactly, is Serena good for tennis again?
-- Joel, Vancouver British Columbia

• Serena is good for tennis for many reasons, not least because she wins a lot of majors. But Serena lost a lot of fans Saturday, and armed her detractors. Say, "You can't be serious." Or even, "You can't [expletive] be serious." But to threaten to stick a ball down the official's throat, all the while approaching the woman with racket raised? That's just not acceptable.

What about the hubris to object to a foot fault so forcefully when you were looking up? What about the self-delusional press conference that lacked anything resembling an apology or accountability? What about the gall to claim pacifism when, only a few months ago, Serena similarly threatened her third-round opponent at the French Open, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez?

I just want to go in defense of Serena: With the cursing -- which should be taken as emphasis, like "bloody" -- she did nothing John McEnroe and others haven't done. I can understand the incredible frustration she must have felt having a foot fault called on such a crucial point. And she had already dropped the whole thing to serve the next point when the line judge went crying to the chair. Plus, she displayed remarkable poise to walk away to go shake Kim's hand after the ridiculous point penalty. I think she held herself in control pretty well considering the situation. The line judge seemed vindictive, like she really wanted to stick it to Serena.
-- Trac Vu, New York, N.Y.

• While it's true that Serena isn't the first player to curse or use vile language, there's a difference between that and threatening an official with violence, all the while brandishing your racket. Serena deserved what she got.

I know this is cynical, but could Serena's outburst have been on purpose? She has never been gracious in defeat and this way the attention is on her instead of Kim.
-- Brandon, Mason, Mich.

• The thought occurred to me, too: If I don't technically lose the last point, maybe I didn't really lose. We've seen elite athletes go to greater lengths to delude themselves.

Can we assume the WTA is partly to blame for the most recent Serena incident? This is the second time in the last few months that Serena has threatened someone with physical violence. Perhaps the WTA should penalize Serena severely this time in order to send the message that this behavior will not be tolerated.
-- Martin H., Pasadena, Calif.

• Fine her, don't suspend her.

I think Serena's outburst is great for the sport. We need interesting personalities and controversy to get people talking about tennis again.
-- Brett, Manchester, N.H.

• Interesting? Yes. Personalities that threaten violence? Not so much.

No doubt your mailbag is overflowing with Serena comments. Like many New Yorkers, I was watching the match while surrounded by glossy newspaper pages celebrating Derek Jeter for overtaking Lou Gehrig's record for career hits with the Yankees. Do Jeter's raw numbers justify such an effusive response from the media and fans? Perhaps not, but we are all delighted and, yes, relieved to celebrate an exemplary athlete who is always ready to play his best, treats everyone with respect and never invites scandal. Parents especially are grateful to have a role model for their children who can achieve results "the right way," to use the most prevalent quote about Jeter this weekend. Serena might be a superb athlete and fierce competitor, but her lack of grace and erratic commitment mean I would never suggest her as a role model for a child. Johnny Mac and Jimmy Connors would not have made my list either. How can you ask a child to admire an athlete for the very behavior that you would dock their pocket money for? I don't think we would have the same affection for Roger Federer or Andre Agassi if they had not overcome their earlier brattiness and matured into great sportsmen not only on the court but off it.
-- Linda, New York

• Nice post. Thanks.

You know, I have so much MORE respect for Serena right now. Anyone who has been in a tight match like that knows how intense one's emotions can get. Yet, to go through with the postmatch interview and to provide such forthright and analytical answers so soon after such an emotional loss speaks well of Serena.
-- Masae Tsukakoshi, McLean, Va.

• Plenty of players have been stressed out without threatening violence in the most profane terms.

I know you are getting inundated with Serena e-mails, but there is one question that should be addressed here and now. Serena was booed as she walked off the court. Now, she hasn't played at Indian Wells since she and Venus were booed all those years ago. If she plays the U.S. Open next year after being booed this year, what does that do to the stance she has taken at Indian Wells? Seems to me if she can play the U.S. Open after being booed, the WTA needs to step in and reevaluate letting her slide at Indian Wells.
-- John Tozzi, Seattle

• Apples and oranges. I think a lot of the booing Saturday was in response to the unsatisfying ending. Also, inasmuch as the booing was aimed at Serena, the reasons were a lot more valid in this case.

I'm waiting for your thoughts on what happened Saturday night, but let me just say that the rain, the hours and hours of waiting (both fans and, more important, players) and the way the Clijsters/Serena match ended sort of left me blah about this whole U.S. Open.
-- Anand Ramaswamy, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• For 10 days, this was a stellar tournament. Then it imploded. Say this about our sport: It's never boring.

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