Thursday, September 17, 2009


For anyone living in a cave or something, up there is Serena Williams officially losing me this weekend, after I have been a big fan of hers for a long time. I mean, I've always loved the Williams sisters, mostly because they can really play the game and they make for great, interesting television, and secretly I've always rooted harder for Serena than for Venus because I too am a younger sibling with an overachieving older brother very close in age to me, so I understand the competitiveness and the spirit burning inside Serena better than most. But somehow, since Serena completely lost it at the US Open this past weekend, all I seem to be hearing is how she got screwed, she was the victim of an unfair foot fault call, and that what she did is wrong but no big deal.

Well it is a big deal, it's a very big deal, and in my view, so far Serena Williams has gotten off very easy compared to what should be happening to her as a result of her little outburst.

Let's start by talking about what got Serena all worked up in the first place. Serena complains that she never gets called for foot faults, but suddenly here in this U.S. Open, she got called for them all the time. Specifically, two points away from losing the U.S. Open semifinals to Kim Clijsters, Serena was called for a foot fault that ended up making her face two match points in a row. And ESPN and the networks have plenty of up close and personal footage where you can easily see that part of Serena's foot does in fact touch the line on the serve when she was called for the fault, so there's no actual doubt about whether or not the call was accurate. Serena's explanation above seems to suggest instead that she thinks she is entitled to foot fault whenever she wants because it is not something that she feels has been consistently called against her this year. To this day Serena only refers to the call as "the unfair foot fault call", even while eventually apologizing to her opponent, her fans and even to the line judge after about two days and making two other press releases first.

Unfair? And how exactly is this call unfair? So let me get this straight: Serena makes a habit of foot-faulting, and some times this year the line judges have not always called it on her. There is a clear rule, the thick white line is there where the players serve for a reason, but Serena I guess just likes to disregard that clear rule of tennis when it suits her. And some people have let her get away with it previously. So now she's automatically entitled to continue getting away with clearly violating one of tennis's main procedural rules? I mean, this isn't necessarily like when people say the refs should swallow the whistle in overtime of a hockey game, or in the final minute of a close NBA game (which I absolutely disagree with as well btw). Many of those calls or debatable whether or not they are violations, and much subjective judgment is involved by definition in making a call like holding or pass interference in the NFL, roughing or intereference in hockey, or a blocking foul in the NBA. In this case, there is a clear white line, there is a lineswoman staring right down the line for the exact purpose of watching the foot faults, and Serena clearly stepped on the line. It's a foot fault -- factually speaking -- and there is no debate about it. So just because Serena has gotten away with doing this before, does that mean she is now entitled to keep breaking that clear rule in the future, even in the biggest spots near the end of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world?

Let me ask it a different way: just because OJ clearly murdered two people and got away with it once, does that now mean that the murder statutes no longer apply to him, and he's allowed to kill whoever he wants for the rest of time? Is that how it works? Obviously not. Some people let Serena break a rule. But the rule still 100% applies to her just like it does to everyone else. Others were called for foot faults during this year's U.S. Open just like Serena was, and it's not like she is even trying to argue that it is only being applied to her and not to others. No, Serena is just objecting to the lineswoman calling a foot fault -- one which Serena was clearly guilty of -- at that key point in a match.

So I guess then that Serena is allowed to break other rules too if the match is on the line? What's next? If Serena is down a break already in the first set, and she hits a ball out of bounds, the referees should allow her to hit the ball into the doubles court of her opponent? Or can she smack a ball two feet long and still expect it to get called In near the end of a match since all those fancy white lines on the court apparently don't apply to her when the match is on the line? Or better yet, why can't Serena just walk right up to the net and serve from there as hard as she can and smash each serve by her opponent? I mean, the foot fault rule isn't supposed to be called in that spot according to Serena, so how do you draw the line at being just one inch over the line, or one foot, or ten feet for that matter, right? Face it -- the foot fault line was enacted to ensure that people do not get the unfair advantage that clearly goes to someone who serves from closer to the net than everybody else. It cuts down the angles, increases the speed of the ball when it gets to the opponent, and makes it that much harder to return a serve as it is served closer and closer to the net. The powers that be in tennis decided that serves must be launched from fully behind the back line, and that any touching of that line by the player's foot before the serve is made is a violation. For good reason. And that's the rule in tennis, period. So to be clear, there is nothing "unfair" about this or any other call made against Serena at the U.S. Open. If anything, her being allowed to foot fault at other matches during this year is what's unfair -- both to Serena, in making her think the rules did not apply to her, and especially to her previous opponents who apparently repeatedly had to deal with someone getting a little bit of an edge on every serve by breaking a clearly established, clearly defined rule of the game.

And now let's clarify exactly what this outburst was. This was not someone slamming her racket on the ground (that was earlier in the match) and yelling out "Shit!" in a loud voice. And this wasn't even someone doing what I call "pulling a McEnroe" and asking how the line judge could be so blind, how could she miss that call, etc. This went far beyond complaining about a bad call. For those who don't read lips and have not heard the story, what Serena turned to the line judge who called that foot fault on her and said was "If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat! Motherfucker!"

Somehow, nobody is talking about this angle, but what Serena did here goes right to the integrity of the game, and that's why it is no small thing even by John McEnroe's standards. Serena repeatedly menacingly shook her racket towards the line judge, and screamed at her about shoving the fucking ball down her fucking throat. This is far beyond complaining about a bad call. This is threatening an official at the game with imminent and detailed physical violence, and that is a huge no-no. In all professional sports.

Let me ask you this: what would you think if Alex Rodriguez came out onto the field in between innings at Yankee Stadium, put his arm around the home plate umpire, and said "Listen, Bruce. If you'll make sure I get something to hit by calling the first two pitches thrown to me next inning balls instead of strikes, I'll give you $10,000 cash money after the game"? Does that sound acceptable to you? Of course it's not acceptable, and it is expressly against the rules to offer anything of value to an umpire that is likely to or designed to -- or which gives the impression that it could -- influence the way he calls the game.

Well it's the same thing in the other direction. What if A-Rod lifted up his shirt showed the umpire a long, sharp bowie knife stuck in his pants pocket, and told the ump that if he didn't call the first two pitches to A-Rod balls instead of strikes, that A-Rod was doing to plunge that blade deep into the umpire's throat? What are your feelings on that? Of course it is not acceptable, and in fact just like the previous example, it's grounds for an immediate suspension to make statements that influence or attempt to influence the officials in this way. I mean, it's one thing to whine about a bad call. You can yell, you can swear, you can complain all you want (within reason). But when it moves to the point of threatening imminent physical violence towards someone for making a call against you, what's the likely result of that going to be? We didn't get to see it here because Serena's blowup immediately cost her match point and the players left the court, but what do you think would have been going through that lineswoman's mind if, say, 10 minutes later, she saw Serena foot fault again in a later play in the match? Would she have made that call just as readily as she made the first one, having just been threatened with imminent bodily harm like that by a clearly very angry and out-of-control Serena Williams? Maybe yes, maybe no. I don't know. But the very fact that we have to wonder about it is exactly what makes Serena's outburst so totally unacceptable, on a very basic and significant level.

The best analog I can recall to what Serena did by threatening serious physical violence against a lineswoman in the US Open is when Rasheed Wallace flipped out at NBA referee Tim Donaghy back in 2003 (in what actually turned out to be one of the many games Donaghy fixed) and actually waited outside by the loading dock for Donaghy to leave the stadium later that night in an attempt to kick Donaghy's ass. Wallace was suspended by the NBA for seven games for this little stunt, the longest suspension in NBA history for something that did not involve actual violence or substance abuse. And why did 'Sheed receive such a long suspension? For fucking with the game itself. For attempting to use physical threats to intimidate a game official into calling the game the way Wallace wanted him to, instead of the way the ref saw fit.

What Serena did was exactly the same thing as Rasheed, only in a bit of a different medium. That the U.S. Open let the dollar signs do the talking and allowed Serena to play in the women's doubles finals with her sister Venus two days later is sad enough as it is. But Serena should clearly be suspended for what she did the other day in New York, for at least a couple of tournaments as far as I'm concerned. I am sure if it was anyone other than Serena (or Venus) that a multi-tournament suspension would have already been announced. WTA, get off your asses and do the right thing to show Serena and the rest of the players on the men's and women's tours that threatening physical violence against the game's officials will not be tolerated in any way, shape or form. So far Serena has suffered absolutely nothing from her outburst, other than the ridicule of millions of Americans who watched a desperate, angry little baby sulking and moping and lashing out in a pathetic attempt to blame a totally innocent lineswoman for her own crappy play and semifinals loss.

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Blogger Bayne_S said...

Should NBA retroactively lift the suspension on Rasheed now?

He could sort of be viewed in same light as Canseco for shining light on a flawed part of his sport. If only he had not complained about every foul called on him in his entire NBA career.

6:00 AM  
Blogger l.e.s.ter said...

"Desperate, angry little baby sulking and moping and lashing out." Ah yes, the life of a younger sib. Go Venus!

1:30 AM  

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