Monday, September 14, 2009

Foot (in mouth) fault

The words of John McEnroe must have been resonating somewhere in the back of Serena William's mind as she heard the foot fault call at the most critical of moments in her match with Kim Clijsters. You cannot be serious!!! But the linesman was, and the USTA certainly was. After one of the ugliest, most profane outbursts in recent tennis history, Serena Williams, and her chance to once more capture the US Open title, faded into the night.

It was an inexcusable, reprehensible response by Ms. Williams. I am certain that once the moment passed, she was mortified by the level of her anger. She has not spent a career like this. This was not in keeping with her persona. Her action demanded swift reply by the gods. The question was whether the penalty fit the crime.

Sports has long lived by the unwritten rule that an umpire, referee or linesman should not decide the outcome of the event. In crucial moments, let the players play unless there is 'clear and convincing' evidence of wrongdoing. When a basketball player drives the lane in the last seconds of a 1 point game, the referee should swallow his whistle if there is ANY doubt whether the defender has done wrong. In football, that holding call by the lineman should go unpunished on the last play unless a blind man could see the penalty. Can anyone who follows baseball and its histrionics forget the outburst by George Brett directed at the umpire in the famous pine tar incident, for deciding the game winning homer was in fact an out because of excessive goo on the bat?

The pressure of the defining moment in individual endeavors, like tennis, can only be magnified. Serena, spending an evening battling her game and her composure was ready to boil over even before this call. She had done in a racket at the end of the first set, prompting a 'warning' that now put her on double secret probation. One more outburst, and a point penalty would be the automatic result.

When the call was made, all the emotion of the evening poured out. It was a combination of frustration, anger at herself, and the breaking of the unwritten rule, that set Serena off.

I grew up in an era with the nasty boys of tennis, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and most famously, Johnny Mc. Referees and linesmen must have run for cover when they learned of being assigned to handle the matches of one of these players. They were boorish, immature and generally (truth be known) somewhat entertaining. One was never sure whether to laugh or cry when one of these moments surfaced.

We have now lived through an era of Mr. Federer and all that is proper and wonderful. In fact, for some time his attire on the court was almost formal wear. We have come to expect civility.

Yet, in balancing the crime and the punishment, I feel that we, and Serena were cheated. Let her finish the match. For the fans watching this epic struggle, it was an unhappy and uncomfortable ending. For Kim Clijsters, let her complete the task at hand. She wanted the battle to go on.

There were other ways to make the point with Serena. Default her from the doubles final she was to play with her sister. Default her from next year's US Open Hit her hard in her pocketbook, even if that has little true meaning to one in her financial position.

I know that rules are rules. I know that we cannot have standards only when it is convenient. But, I also know there is an unwritten creed to let the players decide, in the most excruciating of moments, who wins. The linesperson should not have called a questionable foot fault. The USTA should have allowed play to move forward, uninterrupted, and for the moment, forgiven the unforgivable. We could have enjoyed the end, one way or the other, to the most compelling match of the women's tournament. We could have taught our lesson to Serena in the days to come. I think everyone lost when Serena Williams was forced off the court.


1 comment:

Jack said...

Couldn't agree more, only want to take it a little further. In the final analysis only the fans were cheated because they, along with the rest of us, ultimately pay those huge salaries and prizes athletes get. Regardless of the unfortunate circumstances, either way, Serena deserved to lose because "in (two) crucial moments" she forgot who she was and what her obligation to her public is.