Goodbye to goodwill, and to 2011 season
On Tuesday, Serena Williams's agent confirmed that Williams will not compete again in 2011. And with that bit of news, my fears were confirmed. I'd been duped.
You see, this summer I watched Serena's comeback from a year-long, injury- and illness-plagued layoff with amazement and admiration. She was so thrilled to be playing again after surviving a life-threatening pulmonary embolism that she shed tears of joy after her first round win at Wimbledon in June. She was congratulatory of and courteous to her opponents, and she seemed genuinely grateful for the chance to compete again -- win or lose. This was clearly the look of an athlete who couldn't wait to sign up for the 2011 Podunk Open simply for the love of the game, right? In short, a more refined, gracious version of Serena had replaced the old, lineswoman-threatening model. Or so she had led me to believe.
Fast forward to the U.S. Open. Serena seemed unfazed by her low seed (No. 28) or by the difficult draw that lay ahead. She refrained from making any I-could-beat-you-with-one-of-my-jewel-encrusted-headbands-covering-my-eyes remarks about her opponents. And with a skip in her step and a mega-watt smile, she breezed through the tournament. Then came the final.
In case you missed it, Serena ripped into chair umpire Eva Asderaki during her 6-2, 6-3 loss to Samantha Stosur after the official docked Williams a point under the "intentional hindrance" rule. Serena had yelled, "Come on!" in celebration of a shot she mistakenly thought was a clean winner; Stosur ended up getting a racket on the ball, prompting the point penalty that cost Serena the first game of the second set.
Incensed by the ruling, Williams pointed at Asderaki and asked, "Aren't you the one who screwed me over last time here?" apparently mistaking Asderaki for the umpire in the chair for her notorious foot fault tirade in the 2009 U.S. Open semis. She went on to call Asderaki a "loser" and "unattractive inside," and added that the umpire should "look the other way" if they ever met off the court. Perhaps most puzzling was Serena's raging exclamation of "I hate you!" when just minutes later she told Asderaki, "You're a hater." Was this the final of the U.S. Open, or was I watching an episode of "Teen Mom?"
In typical Serena style, she had already "forgotten" what she had said by the time she reached her press conference. So why am I still thinking about it almost a month later? I wasn't the one in the umpire's chair being berated by one of the world's best athletes. But in the months since her return from a yearlong layoff, I had come to expect better from Williams. I even went so far as to opine glowingly about her renewed outlook and newfound appreciation for the game.
Turns out that the old, victimized version of Serena was lurking just beneath the surface. Just like the infamous foot fault call two years ago, she interpreted the umpire's "intentional hindrance" ruling as a personal affront rather than an impartial application of the official rulebook. Her reaction -- an attack on Asderaki, not the rule -- confirmed as much. And with an outburst that lasted just minutes, Serena effectively negated all the goodwill she'd been stockpiling since she clawed her way back from potentially career-ending health issues.
Williams later claimed the verbal attack was a result of her intensity on the court. Call me crazy, but there are plenty of athletes who ooze intensity without losing their cool. In fact, one of the fiercest competitors on the women's tour, Marion Bartoli, forfeited a point on the exact same hindrance call in her second-round loss to Christina McHale the week before. Bartoli was visibly upset, but she accepted her fate (and her mistake) and moved on.
In the wake of the tantrum that tainted Stosur's brilliant performance, one element was conspicuously absent: an apology. If Serena's emotions just got the better of her, as she later claimed on Twitter, why not throw in a simple I'm sorry? Those words go a long way in American sport. Just ask Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez or Michael Vick.
Instead, I'm left wondering if my disappointment in Serena's behavior is equivalent to what Lindsay Lohan's fans must feel when she emerges from rehab only to be seen cocktailing at a club shortly after. It's clear that no punishment, much less the paltry $2,000 fine imposed by the USTA, will substitute for a self-imposed attitude adjustment.
Serena will be fined again for pulling out of mandatory tournaments in Tokyo and Beijing because of unspecified medical reasons. And with no tournaments on her calendar for the rest of the year, I'll be left nursing my shattered illusions, and women's tennis will hobble into the offseason without its biggest star.
American fans want to root for their only countryman (or woman, in this case) capable of winning major championships. I just wish Serena didn't make it so darn hard to do so.