Monday, September 14, 2009

“A Triumph of Good Over Evil”
by John Alexander Madison
September 14, 2009

For nearly twenty-four hours we feared there was no justice in this world, none at all. The question was whether tennis superstar Serena Williams would be fined and/or suspended from the women’s professional tennis tour for her worse than despicable behavior during her semi-final match of the 2009 U.S. Open Tennis Championships. Allow me to set the scene.

It was late Saturday evening and Kim Clijsters of Belgium was making history. She won the 2005 U.S. Open then retired from tennis the following year to start a family. After her father passed away early 2009, Kim decided to come out of retirement. With a husband and an 18 month old daughter in tow, Kim got back into shape, practiced a lot, and then entered two tournaments. Not yet ranked high enough to gain entry into the 2009 U.S. Open, the United States Tennis Association (U.S.T.A.) granted Kim a wild card entry into the tournament. The rest, they say, is history.

Kim advanced to semi-finals after defeating five opponents including former two-time U.S. Open Champion Venus Williams and several other highly ranked players. But her biggest obstacle to returning to another final was Serena Williams, a three-time U.S. Open Champion. Surprisingly, Clijsters was dominating the defending champion and was leading 6-4, 6-5 (30-15) when “it” happened. An attentive line umpire called a foot fault on Williams’ second serve setting up a match point for Clijsters, at 15-40. After a moment of hesitation Williams went berserk. She approached the line umpire, angrily shaking her racket-in hand fist, and blurted out the unprintable…something to the effect of ‘I’m going to take this f****** ball and shove it down your f****** throat.’ Really? Really!

So my friend and tournament referee Brian Early was summoned to the court and within moments the match was over. What I haven’t shared with you is that after losing the first set about 45 minutes earlier, Ms. Williams smashed her tennis racket into the court, demolishing it. According to the rules of tennis, the chair umpire issued Ms. Williams a warning, which is the first step in the cumulative penalty process. A second behavioral incident in tennis calls for a point penalty. So after the foot fault call late in the second set the score became 5-6, 15-40, match point for Clijsters. With the imposition of the point penalty by the referee and chair umpire, for Williams’ outrage, the match was over. What a strange and sudden ending. Williams was still furious and Clijsters was stunned. She had now successfully reached the Sunday night final through a miraculous career comeback, some spectacular tennis, and a series of events which will be remembered as unusual and bizarre.

Williams not only blew her cool and a chance to become a four-time U.S. Open Singles Champion, she also would surely face stiff fines and penalties from the powers that be in women’s tennis. Surely. And it happened, less than 24 hours later Serena Williams was fined “one million big ones.” Now to you and me that would be an awfully stiff and perhaps unfair punishment, but to Williams it is all relative. After all she has won, to date, more that $22.8 million in career prize money plus tens of millions more in endorsements. And by losing her semi-final match on Saturday evening she pocketed a smooth $350,000 in prize money. So a fine of a million…well, she can handle it. And that seems to be it…just a fine, no suspension. That is truly bizarre.

Now here’s the issue: I challenge you to name any other sport in which an athlete storms angrily over to an umpire or referee, lethal weapon in hand, and angrily threatens said umpire, violently swears at said umpire, and does not get a serious suspension from the sport in addition to a fine. To save you the time, I’ll tell you, there is none.

For the integrity of the sport which has been an important part of my life for over five decades I beg the Women’s Tennis Association and the U.S.T.A. to suspend Ms. Serena Williams’ for a significant period of time. It would mean little to impose a 30-day suspension with no major championships on the horizon. However, suspending Ms. Williams from the season-ending Sony-Ericsson championship event in Qatar the week of October 27, 2009 would, in my opinion, be an appropriate punishment. Of course, I would raise the fine too…significantly!

Dick Enberg, normally smooth television tennis commentator, opined after the Williams match that the line umpire’s foot fault call was clearly a case of “over officiating.” Really? Are you suggesting, Mr. Enberg, a foot fault be called only at non-crucial points of a match, and surely not against champions such as Ms. Williams? I’ve got news for you Dick, a foot fault is a foot fault, when it happens it must be called. End of story.

The rest of this story has a happy ending, one which will be a more memorable and lasting image of the 2009 U.S. Open Women’s Tennis Championships than Williams’ inexcusable behavior and mild slap on the wrist from the tennis establishment. Williams’ tantrum has already been described as the worst example of bad sportsmanship in the history of women’s tennis.

All’s well that ends well. What will be remembered, and fittingly so, was the Sunday evening finals featuring the truly gracious Kim Clijsters and equally gracious 19-year old Danish up and comer, 9th seeded Caroline Wozniacki…the first Dane ever to reach a Grand Slam tennis final. Clijsters finished her Cinderella story with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Wozniacki in a fine display of tennis among two talented and gracious sportsmen. She is also the first unseeded player to ever win the Championships and the first mother to do so since 1980. Well done, Kim.

Oh, I mentioned the fine of one million but I failed to mention it was a fine of one million PENNIES! That’s right, one million pennies ($10,000), a mere slap on the wrist…and no suspension! I am embarrassed for the sport of tennis. Let’s only hope, after a few more days, the tennis gods will come to their senses and impose a more meaningful and message sending penalty.

(the author is a former college and tournament tennis player who served as an international referee and tennis umpire for many years, and was a former deputy referee of the U.S. Open, in addition to being the chair umpire for a previous U.S. Open Men’s Singles Final)

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