Yesterday, history repeated itself as yet another one of Serena Williams’ US Open outings ended in outburst and shame. This year’s events certainly weren’t anywhere close to what unfolded two summers ago, and rather than being threatening, she turned into a hysterical half-crying half-ranting mess. But it was still bad, and naturally the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative.
What surprised me most wasn’t the actual outburst, but the fact that she really appeared to believe that Eva Asderaki – one of the best umpires in the game – was part of some conspiracy deliberately out to get her and “screw her over”, as she so eloquently put it. It was just insane paranoia.
But then again, if you really think about what has gone on in her career, can she really be blamed for thinking that the whole tennis world is conspiring against her?
Throughout the years of her career we have seen Serena the victim of an unprecedented amount of incidents and drama. We all know the story of the Williams sisters and how they rose to the top of the game their own way; defying the traditional country club barriers of race, social class and the traditional process that most go through to get to the top. For that reason, from the age of 10/11/12 people have been rooting against her, hoping that she would fail and the hype surrounding her would be nothing but hype.
And that was before she even made it onto the main tour. Since she has established herself as one of the best and greatest players ever, incidents involving her as the victim have come thick and fast. In 2001, Venus withdrew from their Indian Wells semifinal match long before their match. However, the WTA decided to wait until only minutes before they were due to go on-court before announcing it. The crowd then booed (which may or may not have been racially motivated) a 19 year-old Serena in the final. Though she admitted in her autobiography that as a teenager, having to stand there and watch as 16,000 of her own people booed her for doing absolutely nothing wrong was one of the most painful moments of her life, she stayed classy.
In 2003, we watched as Serena’s bitter rival Justine Henin resorted to dirty gamesmanship and cheating in order to triumph over Serena at the French Open. Henin’s coach Carlos Rodriguez later claimed that she would have owned up to any player but Serena. The same match also saw her left to effectively left call her own lines and continually stop points as the linespeople made abysmal call after abysmal call against her. Williams was then booed off Philippe Chatrier in tears, bursting into fresh tears in the press conference. Even so, she complimented Henin’s play through the tears; she stayed classy.
A year later came yet another controversial incident in the quarterfinals of the US Open against Jennifer Capriati, which has become infamous for being the match that ushered in the era of electronic line-calling. It was a farce and a joke, with bad calls coming in all sets with completely different linespeople. She could have easily lost her mind – and it was so bad that no one would have really blamed her for doing so – but to her credit she once again didn’t put a single foot out of line. In parts of the match she looked completely exhasperated and other parts she looked ready to cry, but she always stayed classy.
These are only a few of the countless incidents involving Serena over the years, and it’s why I can’t help but think that – without condoning her awful behaviour towards Shino Tsurubuchi in 2009 and Eva Asderaki this year – Williams seems to have just reached her breaking point. She was never angry and it was so rare to see her even politely complain, let alone insult an umpire. But after 13 years of inexplicably hostile crowds, racist hecklers, lying and cheating opponents and so on, she has finally broken, and all that anger suppressed and pushed deep down in these incidents throughout the years is rearing its ugly head all at once.
One incident that really re-affirmed this to me was when Serena played Jelena Jankovic in Rome last year. In the tiebreak, Serena was leading 5-2 when she was distracted and put her hand up to ask for more time. Jankovic only saw the hand after she served and immediately launched into a tradmark moan and groan towards the umpire as only she can. Meanwhile, you could see Serena standing there watching the exchange, squinting while looking nervous and rattled. She then lost a shaky 5 points in a row to lose the match and instead of showing her frustration at losing such a tight match and big lead, the very first thing she did was make a bee-line for Jankovic in order to make sure Jankovic knew she wasn’t trying to cheat, infamously telling her ‘I would never cheat you like that; I’m not Justine’. Many criticized her words and for not having gotten over the 7 year-old incident, but I was more touched. Even seven years down the line, the wounds of that event were still raw and painful; and rather than breaking her racket at losing a big lead and tight match, she wanted to first make sure that Jankovic knew she wasn’t trying to make her feel that way too.
So often we look at Serena with her bulging muscles and brash American swagger and just assume that she brushes off those incidents without a care in the world, but without sounding all sentemental and cliché, underneath the muscles and confidence is a normal person inside. Her recent behaviour has been ugly, unpleasant and horrible, but really, was this all a matter of when rather than if?
Let’s just hope that with time, she can let this anger and paranoia go and revert back to the sporting and non-complaining Serena Williams that, though rarely spoken about, has defined the vast majority of her illustrious career.