Serena Williams, In A Tennis Tradition


katie-bakes-iii“That’s as angry as I’ve ever seen her,” remarked CBS analyst John McEnroe Saturday night as Serena Williams advanced, shaking her racquet and shouting, on a wide-eyed lineswoman at the US Open.

Williams was reacting, maniacally, to a second serve foot fault call that gave opponent Kim Clijsters a double match point at 6-5 in the second set of the semifinals. Her rant was vulgar and uncalled for. It was menacing and immature. It was unsportsmanlike. It was also, dare I say, pretty entertaining.

Televised ranting in sports is nothing new. Anyone who has watched Tiger Woods play has probably lip-read some choice words before, and Twitter’s own Shaquille O’Neal once dropped an f-bomb in a postgame interview. And McEnroe himself could always be counted on for some theatrics: in a bit of an elephant-in-the-room situation for tennis’ on-air team, it is practically impossible to give context to any on-court meltdown without invoking his name, or at least Jimmy Connors’.

In fact, no more genteel a tennis lover and scholar than Sidney B. Wood, Jr. – 1931’s Wimbledon champion – was in 1981 inspired by McEnroe to write an essay for the New York Times titled “Tantrum Throwers Through The Years.” He began:

IT has taken far more than one act of gross misbehavior to persuade this writer, as a member of what can be described as the international tennis fraternity, to publicly berate certain of his offending fellow members, and one in particular. The time has come.

The time came because Mac lacked the time – he snubbed the All England Club’s victory dinner, forcing poor Chris Evert Lloyd to apologize “as an American” for his absence and gravely offending Wood, who wrote that his name “will stand out as adefacement on the All England Club’s 104-year championship roster.”

But Wood’s essay, which reads like a Dominic Dunne dispatch –- the phrase “heterosexual proclivities” is used, and he gets super catty about Connors –- goes on to identify great complainers through the ages, proving that the more things change, etc. It’s unfortunate that Serena lost her cool, and she’s certainly better than that. But great athletes are like geniuses: sometimes they’re just a little crazy. And sometimes in tennis, it just may be a lunatic we’re looking for.

Many people, myself included, missed the Williams-Clijsters match live; rain throughout the weekend pushed it back to an awkward start time early Saturday evening. But no doubt most have by now seen the replays, whether they’ve wanted to or not. Williams’ rant was both meticulously recorded and visually stunning. It didn’t take long for enterprising onlookers to provide a transcription of her explosive words — suffice to say that balls being shoved down throats was a clear and present threat — and cameras were there to capture the essence of each tangential character.

Viewers saw the diminutive lineswoman scurrying, (the New York Times identified her as “Shino” yesterday morning before before changing the article to note that the USTA had not released her name) the imposing Williams hulking, the doddering tennis officials brow-furrowing.

Adding to the drama, it wasn’t even Williams’ first outburst of the match, which is why it was to be her last. After losing the first set 6-4 to Clijsters, Williams manhandled her racquet in frustration and was assessed a code violation warning. Her later outburst, then, was a second offense that carried with it a point penalty. As it happened, that was at match point, giving Clijsters, unseeded and just out of retirement, a bizarre ascension into the Finals and a chance to be the first mother to win a Grand Slam in 29 years.

“You can’t call that there,” whined McEnroe from the booth, showing his old colors and making the age-old argument that refs should just let the players play when the game is on the line. Later, after Serena named McEnroe one of her idols in a very incongruously laid-back press conference, the TV analyst began to backpedal, saying that he couldn’t “defend the indefensible” according to Newsday’s Neil Best.

Best also noted that Mary Carillo, the gloriously understated and NPR-voiced tennis analyst, chastised Williams for “the disingenuous, Oscar-worthy performance in her post-match news conference.” It was definitely an odd presser, with Williams’ on court menace replaced by an upbeat series of spotty memories (I was reminded of Will Ferrell in Old School, post-debate: “What happened? I blacked out!”) and rote clichés. She seemed robotic. One observer remarked on Tumblr that “she must have mainlined a cup of Xanax” en route to the press room.

But others found it to be the calm after the storm. Richard Deitsch, writing on, credited USTA officials for holding a normal press conference. And ESPN’s Bonnie Ford noted that both players “handled their meetings with the press superbly” and focused on the on-court moment where Williams quietly accepted the procedural defeat and immediately ran to congratulate the bewildered Clijsters:

While Richard Williams may have bequeathed fierceness and an explosive, racket-cracking temper to his daughter, her mother Oracene Price is visible in Serena’s makeup as well. It’s evident in the composure Serena can display under stifling pressure, and it was evident in Serena’s ability to curb her emotions at the moment when it was clear that rules dictated the match end.

Not so much her mercurial father: the Times reported, amusingly, that Richard Williams “was talking to the N.B.A. star Kevin Garnett outside the stadium when reporters approached him. “Just get out of my face,” he said.

Now that’s entertainment! But in all seriousness, while I am unable to muster too much outrage for what transpired, I will admit that it rubs me the wrong way that Williams has yet to issue even the most transparently unapologetic of apologies (“I did not intend to offend anyone…” can usually do the trick) and I do feel genuinely sorry for the poor lineswoman who bore the brunt of Williams’ unhinged threats. After all, as Sidney Wood wrote in his 1981 essay, “While the authorities of our day were also, on average, barely sufferable badgewearers, almost all of us were able to control our murderous impulses and retain our composure.” Not so Williams, at least at first.

But Wood also acknowledged:

Because the ever-fickle crowd can one day hate the villain and in 24 hours be overcome with adulation for his heroics, McEnroe will again have his ovations.

So too will Serena Williams. One of them will be mine.

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