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Serena’s Meltdown

September 25th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days at the US Open this year. Alex and I snagged courtside seats to some of the play, and less-than-courtside seats to other matches. But despite the superb seats we enjoyed for the women’s final, it couldn’t possibly match the excitement of Serena Williams’s much-discussed meltdown in the semifinals. Just in case you aren’t a tennis watcher, I’ll give you a quick recap. A linesman called a foot foul on Serena bringing the game to match point. Serena berated the linesman. Serena got a point penalty and thus lost the match.

Obviously, the details complicate the situation. Serena had already been issued a penalty for breaking her racquet on the court out of frustration earlier in the match. Thus, there was little room for the officials to look the other way when she lashed out again. The second penalty might not have forced her out of the game but its coming on match point was an unfortunate concurrence of circumstance that effectively ended the contest.

Serena has repeatedly refused to apologize to the linesman but did make a statement showing regret for disappointing her fans.

While Serena has been much-maligned in the press, I’d like to suggest her behavior, while certainly unsportsmanlike (the USTA still seems bent on using exclusively masculine pronouns for their descriptors) hardly warrants a trip to the gallows. She paid her fine, she won the doubles match the next day, let’s all move on.

But, of course, that’s not what’s happening. Interestingly, Roger Federer exhibited some not-too-sweet behavior before losing in the men’s finals. Federer seemed furious at a line judge too at one point in his match. After the judge told Federer to cool it, he said, “Don’t tell me to be quiet, ok? When I want to talk, I talk. I don’t give a f*ck what [del Potro] said.” Roger, though, received a significantly smaller penalty for his actions than Serena did for hers.

So what’s up with that? These two tennis stars were certainly both out of line (pun!). One is getting the crap kicked out of her by everyone from sports writers to announcers like former tennis bad boy John McEnroe. The other just keeps smiling down on the rest of us from a billboard advertising NetJets private aviation. We all know where this is going, right? Serena’s a black woman from Compton. Roger is a white metrosexual from Switzerland. But the difference in our perception is more complex than White European Male versus Black Female of African Descent. The other figures involved in the respective conflicts also color our understanding of the conflict and inform our understanding of the role race played in these two scenarios.

Roger’s little tirade was directed at the chair umpire, Jake Garner, a decidedly white dude. His comments were provocative but came accompanied by no correspondingly aggressive body language. Serena’s situation was markedly different. She stepped commandingly towards the linesman, pointing her racquet at her, warning her that she would, “shove this tennis ball down (her) throat.”

Let’s all agree: That’s not nice. But nor is it in any way the same as Serena threatening to “kill her” as the linesman supposedly stated. I do believe the linesman was intimidated by Serena in that moment. But was she intimidated by her actions, or by her person?

The image of a tall, incredibly muscular and strong black woman angrily approaching a diminutive, seated Asian one is rife with crucial sociological considerations. How do tennis’ (largely white) fans and commentators come to understand the strong visual contrast at play here? I suspect it’s in the nature of many to see Serena as the oppressor, the dominant force and the linesman as the victim, the meek Asian. Nothing could be further from the truth. That linesman’s call of a foot foul was a determining aspect of the match. I don’t believe the call was correct. And even if it was, I don’t think match point is the time to call a foot foul unless the transgression of the line is glaring and allows for a real and significant advantage over one’s opponent. Reasonable fans can disagree on this, of course, but an eloquent analogy for the call was drawn by Dave Zirin in his superb post on the Serena meltdown on edgeofsports. You can read his entry here. Therein he compares the call by the line judge to, “calling a technical foul in Game 7 of the NBA finals with the score tied in the closing seconds.”

The linesman made a bad call, one many would consider to be unforgivable at the very highest levels of athletic competition, and yet Serena had no recourse. There is no electronic review on a foot foul. Serena tried to maintain her composure, and then she cracked. She lashed out at the person in power who had wronged her; that response was conducted in an inappropriate and counterproductive way. Could Ms. Williams have made a better choice? Uh, yeah! And I know that is so because there too have been moments in my life when an individual in power has wronged me and I was left feeling that my only option was to admit defeat or punch that dude in the head. That line judge had swiped from Serena what little chance she had to reclaim the possibility of victory. So, Serena did some head punchin’ sans actual fisticuffs. But Kim Clijsters too was robbed, denied the ability to win her final point at play. Clijsters was left with a victory by TKO – unable to savor her justly deserved win.

In this year’s women’s semifinal, everyone lost.

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