She clenched the ball in her left hand, pointing a forefinger at the woman in the chair. "You'd better be f---ing right!" Serena Williams yelled. "You don't f---ing know me! I swear to God I'm going to take this ball and shove it in your f---ing throat!" She strode over to the lineswoman and raised her racket high, brandishing it like a club. ¶ Boos filled the air inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was shocking, of course: Never in tennis history had such a celebrated player suffered such a graphic meltdown in such a high-profile match. Called for a second-serve foot fault that gave Kim Clijsters match point in their U.S. Open semifinal, Williams launched a tirade that sent her singular career to a new, sinister place. Within minutes she would be assessed a point penalty that would end the match, stain her name, put a bewildered Clijsters in the final and remind the world that tennis, at its lunatic extreme, can produce a circus like no other in sport.
But then, that has been easy to forget lately. Both the genial reign of Roger Federer—who, despite losing the men's final 3--6, 7--6, 4--6, 7--6, 6--2 to the soft-spoken, massive-hitting Argentine Juan Martín del Potro on Monday evening, remains solidly ensconced at No. 1—and the Hawk-Eye line-judging system have conspired to give tennis a kinder, gentler face. The brats of the 1970s, who railed against adverse calls without recourse to instant replay, now appear mostly as commentators and hangers-on, their antics reprised only during rain delays of the kind that shattered last weekend's schedule.
By the time Williams and Clijsters took the court Saturday evening, after a 1½-day rain delay, all the necessary elements for chaos had come together: a half-empty stadium of soggy, frustrated fans; the boozed-up alchemy of a night match in New York City; and a Serena who, in recent months, has seemed bent on proving her tough-gal bona fides. The game has long been torn between its country-club roots and the revitalizing energy of working-class players, but no one has carried a bigger chip of asphalt on her shoulder than the second-ranked Williams.
During a third-round match at the French Open in May, when María José Martínez Sánchez refused to admit having been hit by a ball from Williams (which would have won Serena the point), Williams snarled, "I'm going to get you in the locker room for that. You don't know me." In Flushing Meadow, Williams was called for a foot fault during her second-round match and glared at the linesman. "They do play that song Straight Out of Compton when I walk out [on the court]," she explained after the match, referring to having learned to play tennis in inner-city Los Angeles.
Still, until that incident Williams wasn't known for bullying officials or questioning calls, and her racket abuse was usually confined to quick swipes. Meanwhile, she cruised into the semi without losing a set. The only hint of prematch hostility came when someone asked Serena why she seemed to hold no grudge toward Clijsters after the Belgian beat her sister Venus in the fourth round. "I'm a really good actress," she said.
The 26-year-old Clijsters, who entered the match with a 1--7 record against Williams, had returned to the Open after a 27-month retirement during which she gave birth to her daughter, Jada, now 18 months old. But Clijsters seemed no worse for wear; in fact, she seemed to play better than ever. Williams, in contrast, played sloppily and hesitantly from the start of their match, and when she netted a weak backhand to lose the first set, she smashed her racket against the court and was assessed a code violation. Another transgression would result in a point penalty.
The racket mangling was nothing compared to what came later. At 5--6, 15--30 in the second set, Williams sent a first serve wide and then, as her second delivery dropped in good, heard the call, "Foot fault!" That made it match point for Clijsters, and Williams snapped. She approached the lineswoman, alternately thrusting her racket and a ball toward her, and unleashed the cascade of profanity that brought out tournament referee Brian Earley and Grand Slam supervisor Donna Kelso and ended the match. The next day Williams would be fined a paltry $10,500 and informed that her behavior was under "investigation." It was tennis at its spineless worst: Williams's threat alone warranted a lengthy suspension.
After Earley informed her of the point penalty, Williams tossed her racket at her bag and rounded the net to shake hands with Clijsters, who mumbled, "I'm sorry." Williams's father and coach, Richard, hurried out of the stadium, telling one reporter to "just get out of my goddam face." Serena's postmatch press conference was a study in sugared calm. "I don't know why she would've felt threatened," she said of the lineswoman.
Former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade was dismayed. "It was awful," she said on Sunday night, "and what's worse is that [Serena] didn't acknowledge it and simply say, 'Listen, I just blew my top and it was totally inappropriate.' Take responsibility."
Williams finally did so with a statement released on her website on Monday morning: "I want to sincerely apologize FIRST to the lineswoman, Kim Clijsters, the USTA, and tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst." And after winning the U.S. Open doubles title with Venus that afternoon, Serena called the semifinal incident "humbling" and said she'd like to give the lineswoman "a big ol' hug." Regardless, there's little doubt that her actions—and grudging apology—will remain the tournament's signature moment.