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Serena Williams’ US Open outbursts: An uncharacteristic ticking timebomb?

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.

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17 Responses to Serena Williams’ US Open outbursts: An uncharacteristic ticking timebomb?

  1. TennisFan September 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Nice write-up! Similar in sentiment to:

    - just ignore the inane Evert video.

    I’m surprised more people don’t think the umpire made a horrible judgement call. Serena hit a clear winner, the premature “come-on” was not intended to be a hindrance, should have been a let.

    • footfaulter September 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      It’s just a really unfortunate incident and I feel bad for all concerned. Serena was clearly killing herself and trying her absolute hardest to fight and the premature c’mon was likely because she was fighting so hard that she lost her bearings and didn’t realise the point hadn’t actually finished. All the emotion she was trying to pour into her play was then unloaded straight onto Eva Asderaki.

      Eva was only enforcing the rules and didn’t deserve any criticism. But as you said, the problem is with the actual rule; Serena wasn’t trying to deliberately hinder Sam. It should have been a let rather than giving Sam a point that she was in absolutely no position to win.

  2. TennisFan September 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for the reply. But, like Howard in the referenced ESPN article, I disagree with a ruling of intentional hindrance.

    Here’s the rule:

    “26. HINDRANCE
    If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.

    However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture)”.

    Clearly the premature “come-on” was an unintentional act as in the second part of the rule.

    To belabor the obvious, yelling “come-on” after hitting a winner is common. Serena just yelled a moment too soon. There was no question that it was a winner, so there would be no reason to attempt to hinder your opponent in a point you have won.

  3. Steven September 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    MJMS also cheated Serena of a point when Serena hit a volley and it ricocheted off MJMS’ arm and was called a winner. MJMS pretended like the ball bounced off her racquet.

    Seriously, I’m not even a Serena fan but I’m growing incredibly sick at the amount of people bashing her over this, and I really hope reading this post settles them down (well the haters will continue hating but hopefully everyone else will stop).

    All the bad calls against her doesn’t justify what she did, but really lets you UNDERSTAND what could be running through Serena’s mind.

  4. John Doolittle September 13, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Get your facts straight ”TennisFan” :

    The rules also include Comment 26.1, which asks: “What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who advises the player’s partner in such a loud voice that their opponents are hindered.”

    Comment 26.1 continues: “Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.”

    Under that ruling, Williams’s yelling “Come on!” while the ball was rocketing toward Stosur clearly fit into the definition of a violation.

  5. TennisFan September 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Hey, don’t lambaste me, go after Sports Illustrated. They are the ones that quoted 26 without 26.1

    Maybe you could post a URL that includes the full definition.
    Ya know what’s really ironic? SI just hired Courtney Nguyen, a failed lawyer, and she is the one that quoted the incomplete statute.

  6. TennisFan September 13, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I found the complete statute at

    USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits the overhead.

    Here Serena DIDN’T do what she intended. She intended to yell “come-on” AFTER hitting the winner. The heat of the moment, similar to a “wasp sting” caused her to yell “come-on” once she knew she hit a winner, but before Sam got to flail at the ball.

    I’ve also read that this same umpire called a let against Serena in a similar situation in a previous match. Given that precedence, an intelligent umpire would have stayed on the let side of this grey area.

  7. SA September 14, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Yeah, every single person who has expressed some sort of opinion on the incident needs to read this. They won’t. But they need to.

    Great write up.

  8. bridgepea September 14, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Tumiani, you beat me to that post. I had started to put together a list of incidents throughout Serena’s tennis career and frankly the majority of these incidents have occurred on US soil, and particularly at the US Open. She has been booed and has had to beg for even a smidgen of applause when she has won matches. I can recall in 2003 when she beat Clijsters in the semis of the AO, the crowd collectively booed her because she fought hard to win a match after being down MPs. At Wimbledon she has repeatedly been shunted off to outside courts in place of players who have not accomplished half as much as she has at that tournament and don’t even get me started on the FO.

    Justine Henin confessed and when Serena tweeted about the confession all those in the booth could say is that she should get over it. All of the gutless tennis journos wrote glowing articles defending Robert Kendrick for a doping offence and yet they are all on the bandwagon ready to crucify a player who is only guilty of speaking her mind. As far as I am concerned what happened on Sunday was a long time coming. With all the hindrance that certain players do while they are playing it is mind boggling that Serena should have had a point taken away from her because she shouted come on on what was undoubtedly a winning shot.

    Despite what many in the booth would have us think, Serena Williams is the biggest drawing card for tennis, both men’s and women’s perhaps second only to Fed. Everywhere she played during her return to the Tour have seen sold out stadiums. For the first time the women’s event in Canada looked like a Premier Mandatory event. Eastbourne was sold out. Her Cincy match the same and which other female player could have been billed for a Saturday night match on Ashe and sell out the stadium.

    I understand the ratings for the women’s final surpassed the men’s final by almost 200% and the ratings for the women’s final surpassed that of last year’s final by over 121%. I wonder how much money CBS made on the back of that rerun of Serena having her monologue?

  9. AsheSpinsInHisGrave September 14, 2011 at 5:13 am

    Awwwww, pooooor Serena!

    please, all you enablers, spare us the after-the-fact violins. it was the right call, but it was a horrible punishment (should have been $250,000 fine and a lifetime Grand Slam ban for violating probation)

    • footfaulter September 14, 2011 at 7:15 am

      Enablers? You make it sound like she committed a crime. She had a little immature temper tantrum which has been blown way out of proportion. She didn’t “violate probation”. Did you hear her threaten anyone again? Did you hear her even use foul language towards any linejudge there? Both answers are no, because neither happened.

      Suggesting that she should get a $250k fine for calling someone a “hater” is just plain stupid. The fine she received was what the rules state she should receive for a minor offense. You can’t fine someone substantially more just because they win more and earn more money than everyone else. That’s not within the rules and rightly so.

  10. AsheSpinsInHisGrave September 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Footfaulter, you’re obviously on Serena’s payroll. She broke the rules, threatened an umpire again, and should have been punished severely for it. That she didn’t shows more about the USTA’s lack of integrity than anything else, since she will obviously do it again.

  11. John Doolittle September 14, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    TennisFan, I really can’t waste much more time with you here. For the 2nd time, get your facts straight before posting!!! The WTA and ITF (Majors) rules are different and just google it; don’t have time to explain anything anymore to you…

  12. Prof. Change September 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I am just curious as to where is the article and Evening news sports comments about Mike Byran Assulting an Official at the 2011 US Open and fined $10.000.00 the max. and not being suspended for it let alone arrested.

  13. TennisFan September 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Awfully touchy Doolittle. I prefer to deal in facts. The US Open rules are from the ITF.

    From your previous post, it seems you agree that comment 26.1 is key in determining if the call should be let or loss of point.

    A good summary of how it applies to Serena’s hindrance is at

    As Jon Wertheim mentioned in his tweet, the act of grunting during serve clearly should result in hindrance loss of point. There the player did exactly what they intended. The act of yelling “come-on” a moment too soon due in the heat of the moment is unintentional and should result in a replay. Unless, the umpire is a “Serena-hater” and was convinced that even though Serena had already won the point, Serena intentionally yelled before the point was over just to intimidate Samantha.

  14. Victor Abadio (@unaghii) September 16, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Absolutely well said.
    I just think that if she didn’t do this when she was younger (and naiver), she shouldn’t do this now that she’s more mature. Still, you can kinda see why she’s exploding now, as you said.

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