At the beginning of the 2009 United States Open, the women’s singles division was seen as more a two week coronation than a competition. Having won three of the last four Grand Slams, Serena Williams was seemingly primed to demonstrate, with her dominance, just how flawed the WTA ranking system that had her playing second fiddle to Grand Slam bereft Dinara Safina is. Who was there to challenge her, the experts asked. Safina? Hasn’t shown she can win a Grand Slam. Elena Dementieva? Ditto. Maria Sharapova? Still not showing her pre-injury form. Jelena Jankovic? Please. Well, certainly Venus Williams can show little sis who’s boss, right? Not if recent history is any indication. Outside of Wimbledon, Venus is just as vulnerable as anybody else against Serena. Even at Wimbledon this year, an event Venus has won five times, Serena stood triumphant over the field, including those sharing family DNA. The women’s draw looked dangerously close to being laughably anemic.
Then something funny happened on the way to crowning Serena the Queen of Flushing Meadows. A wildcard stood up and reminded everybody why sports is not played on paper. Out of the game for nearly two years, a revitalized and healthy Kim Clijsters returned to the tour that had sorely missed her penetrating groundstrokes and engaging personality. When the dust settled and the hardcourt battles had been fought, it was Kim, not Serena, holding the champion’s trophy over her head. It was Kim climbing into the stands to embrace family and friends who had taken this improbable journey with her. As a sports story, it was compelling theater. For the first time since Evonne Goolagong twenty-nine years ago, a mother had won a Grand Slam tournament, and this time in only her third tournament since returning from a two year hiatus. But the win was far more than that. Serena did not win the US Open, but her actions in defeat reminded a lot of people why a player like Clijsters, who at only 26 years old with two years in retirement has already won the WTA‘s Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award six times, is so welcome in an athletic landscape increasingly marked by men and women behaving badly.
As a tennis fan and spectator who watched the Serena Williams-Kim Clijsters semifinal match live, it was a surreal experience watching Serena launch into a threatening tirade against a lineswoman who made a questionable foot fault call against her on a second serve, at a point in the contest that handed Kim a match point. That tirade went on unabated with Serena menacingly pointing and cursing at the official, threatening to shove the ball down her throat. Ultimately, after the chair umpire consulted with the lineswoman and tournament referee Brian Early, a code violation point penalty was assessed against Serena, which because it was match point ended the contest in Clijsters’ favor. What had been a wonderful story of Clijsters return, with husband Brian Lynch and toddler daughter Jada in the crowd cheering her on, suddenly was bathed in darkness. I felt so badly for Kim, but I also felt badly for Serena. In the heat of the moment, she completely snapped. Now she will be hard pressed to ever make people forget this episode in her illustrious career. Kim was robbed of the thrill of a victory she was already heading towards. And Serena threw away much of the goodwill afforded her as a result of the good deeds she has done in her life, including charitable work in low income neighborhoods.
Make no mistake. I am not excusing Serena. What she did, in the heat of the moment or not, was inexcusable. Did she receive a bad call? As far as I could see from multiple replays, she did. Was it at a terrible time for Serena in the match? You betcha. Nonetheless, no player can physically threaten an official. Period. A lot of Serena fans have come to her defense, many using the “bad foot fault call” defense. I’ll repeat and make it very simple. No player can physically threaten an official. Period. I’ve heard people say that John McEnroe went on lengthy temper tantrums in his career. Yes, he did. But he never physically threatened an official. He also used foul language, as did Roger Federer during the men’s final on Monday. Serena is not in trouble for using bad language and cursing. She is in trouble for threatening an official. Tennis cannot allow officials to fear for their safety. Even if that threat is made in competitive anger and is not really going to be actualized. A line must be drawn. That type of verbal abuse cannot be tolerated. I believe, although I cannot prove, that if Serena had been some lower profile player who doesn’t push the media ticker, she would have been suspended within 24 hours, effectively defaulting her Monday women’s double final match. But she wasn’t. Tennis needs its stars and Serena is one of the biggest. So she played, and won, the women’s double title with her sister, Venus.
This is not the first sign of poor sportsmanship from Serena. A few years ago, before the retirement of Justine Henin, Serena lost three straight Grand Slam quarterfinal matches to Henin. Even after her third defeat, Serena refused to give Justine any credit, saying Justine hit a lot of “lucky shots.” I do not expect a champion to be happy about losing. But basic sportsmanship dictates that when you lose, you give your opponent at least faint credit. To say Henin was the beneficiary of lucky shots after a third straight Grand Slam defeat is the definition of sour grapes. This is not an isolated incident. There have been other refusals to give opponents credit by Serena in other losses. I don’t think Serena is a bad person. In fact, I doubt with all the good she has done in her life off the court that she is intrinsically flawed. But within the world of tennis on court competition, she often has acted like a petulant child in the face of adversity. When things are going her way, she’s wonderful. When they’re not, don’t expect graciousness. It would benefit Serena if somebody close to her would stop making excuses for her and sit her down and explain that there is more to being a champion than wins and losses.
All of that brings us back to Kim Clijsters, nicknamed Miss Congeniality, who has never been guilty of bringing unsportswoman-like behavior on court. The 2006 WTA Humanitarian of the Year, Clijsters was once accused of being too nice to win a Major. Good friends with Serena, Kim Clijsters is a joy for all the players to be around. Watching her on court after the trophy ceremony playing with her daughter Jada reminded me that nice people can finish first. It was confirmation that character can be part of a champion’s constitution. I don’t expect players to be perfect little angels. Most are not. Few are. Even Federer lets the f-bombs fly from time to time. But I do expect players to be able to keep their emotions from leading them to a place where they make threats to officials. I expect players to show sportsmanship and be good ambassadors for the sport. I don’t think this is asking too much. If players are unsure of the proper way to comport themselves, they need only follow the example of the two-time US Open champion from Bree, Belgium.
Welcome back, Kim Clijsters. More than ever, we need athletes like you.