- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- It's indisputable that Serena Williams could have behaved better, even when she felt wronged Sunday by yet another tennis authority figure making a rare call at a curious time. But the bottom line is the USTA got it right this time when it decided Monday to fine Williams only $2,000 for berating the chair umpire who penalized her an important point in her women's final Sunday against eventual Open champion Samantha Stosur. Tennis could have slapped her with a year's suspension, but didn't.
If Williams is smart, she'll quit dropping hints that someone out there is intent on persecuting her and see Monday's decision as the win-win it is for everyone involved. Yes, she lost a point, but it was in a match that she and even her father, Richard, later conceded she probably wasn't going to win anyway because Stosur was playing that brilliantly. And Serena's two-year probation for her meltdown in the 2009 U.S. Open final now expires without the additional penalties that could have amounted to as much as a $175,000 fine and a possible one-year suspension that would have meant she'd miss the next four Grand Slams. She can keep playing; the Slams can still benefit from her presence. Win-win.
Still, if Williams is contrite about it all, she hasn't said so. She behaves as if there's a chicken-and-egg quality to her outbursts now. She seems to think those who question her indignation have the question all wrong. Rather than ask whether Serena has a temper problem, she suggests everyone should be asking whether tennis has a Serena problem.
In 2001, she and her sister Venus were so appalled by the horrible booing they got from the crowd when Venus withdrew at the last moment before a semifinal match against Serena in Indian Wells, the two of them vowed to never play there again. And they haven't.
Two years ago here at the Open, Serena had an obscenity-laced meltdown directed at a lineswoman who called a foot fault on her in a pivotal moment of her semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters of Belgium. Williams got a record $82,500 fine and the two-year probation for that outburst, which really was her personal Mother of All Meltdowns. It included, among other things, the regrettable sight of Williams walking toward the lineswoman who made the call while squeezing a ball that she said she'd like to cram down the woman's bleeping throat.
Williams' behavior that day was indefensible, and the penalty she got suited how she behaved, even if some of the words that were used to describe her -- "menacing" especially comes to mind -- felt racially loaded. She was enraged, all right. But the possibility that Williams, however angry, would follow through on her threat was next to zero.
Williams' outburst Sunday didn't rise to that level of rage. Not even close.
But anyone who knows her history or her seething competitiveness also knows Williams was unlikely to just pick at her racket strings and stoically walk to the other side of the court when she was again penalized a point at a crucial moment of a match -- this time by chair umpire Eva Asderaki of Greece -- for prematurely yelling, "C'MON!" to herself before a forehand winner she smashed just out of Stosur's reach.
Asderaki cited the "hindrance" rule against Williams, which can be called on a player for intentionally or unintentionally distracting an opponent. Asderaki gave Stosur the point, so Serena -- who had already lost the first set -- was broken at 0-1 of the second instead of back at deuce. Stosur, who did well to keep her composure as the crowd hooted at the call, went on to win in straight sets.
You could see why Williams was upset, and why she might link the 2009 call and this one together. Both calls are in the rulebooks -- the purists and sticklers are right. But let's face it: Both calls are rarely made at such pivotal points in such big matches, giving all those folks who argue the best referees or umpires are the ones who go unnoticed more fodder to shout that it's understandable Williams would object.
Asderaki could have just ordered Williams and Stosur to replay the point, which Williams later suggested she half-expected, comparing the situation to how points are replayed if a player loses a hat during a point. Asderaki chose the harsher option although, to the naked eye, the point looked unwinnable for Stosur. (The Australian did well to even get her racket frame to nick the ball.) Serena had just struck an ace and seemed to be trying to climb back into what had been a sluggish match. Once the call was made, what Serena said next -- things such as, "Are you the one who screwed me over last time? ... You're out to get me. ... This is America, I can express myself." -- hardly rise to the spectacular incendiary heights of the other great tantrums in tennis or sports history. She didn't smash the water cooler or throw all her equipment on the court or cuss up a storm. One of her admonitions to Asderaki -- "If you see me in the hallway, don't even look at me! I despise you!" -- is so high-schoolish that it is beyond comical and closer to John McEnroe's tortured best.
Like McEnroe, Williams has this need -- not just some prim little wish -- to win, dominate, succeed, which a lot of great athletes have.
When they act badly, it's a pretty simple equation a lot of the time: The same thing that makes them great can be their undoing.
It's an old song in sports that has manifested in thousands of jocks and coaches losing their temper before this.
Williams should have said she regrets having two meltdowns in two years at the Open, regardless of the circumstances, even if she couldn't bring herself to completely apologize for it. Reporters gave her ample opportunity after Sunday's match to express some remorse, and she didn't help herself by pretending to have amnesia and saying she couldn't remember the particulars of anything that had happened. Which is too bad.
Until the tantrum, Williams was the women's story of the tournament, for all the right reasons. She'd hardly played this year after coming back from a pulmonary embolism that could have killed her. The scare left her so despondent at first, she later admitted there were days when she was too depressed to get off the couch. But she finally did, embarking on a little more than a month of crash conditioning with fitness guru Mackie Shilstone. She won two tournaments right after she came back this summer. She would have capped an amazing comeback if she'd come back from beating world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki on Saturday, in a match that didn't end until 11:30 p.m. ET, and then defeated the insanely fit Stosur in their Sunday afternoon final, which started at 4.
That's what really should make Serena mad.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.