You know the expression. I don’t have to complete it for you. And it will be one of the ways in which the manner in which Serena Williams lost the 2009 US Open semi-finals will always be understood. Some will say that Serena behaved like a thug when she raised her racket in a threatening manner towards the diminutive Asian lineswoman and was possibly overheard threatening to stuff the tennis ball down her throat.
So I won’t ever argue with people who claim that Serena behaved like a thug. All I will say is that that is only one way of looking at last night’s events. The other way involves appreciating the kind of tension that Serena was clearly under, not only last night, but for years. The tension that comes from repeatedly being treated unfairly.
It is somewhat ironic that in yesterday’s column I mentioned the Martinez-Sanchez incident in which it was Serena herself who made the sotto voce comment about being from Compton after she muttered angrily to herself that Martinez-Sanchez had better think twice about coming in to net. Serena had gotten angry because Martinez-Sanchez did not own up to the fact that she had unfairly won a point when the ball bounced off her arm and not her racket. Video evidence has confirmed Serena to be right.
Serena has long been the victim of this kind of unfairness in tennis. The Justine Henin hand incident at Roland Garros, the unfair line calls in several matches against Jennifer Capriati, the BOOING of the Indian Wells crowd, and now a foot fault call that may not even have been a foot fault - Serena has suffered them all. And I think that what we witnessed last night was her breaking point. It seemed almost as if she had zoned out and temporarily become another person. She was, for a moment, not the serene, self-controlled, laughing tennis player with whom we have all become familiar. She did seem to become, for a moment, a mad woman with a broken tennis racket.
I most enjoy tennis matches in which the officials seem to have such a complete understanding of the type of tension that players are under that they almost stay out of the way and allow the players to work things through. Interestingly, this seems more likely to happen in men’s tennis. Think of all the times that John McEnroe lost his cool and yet the tennis officials looked the other way. There seemed to be a silent understanding that a lot was at stake and that the player was only blowing off steam. When Guillermo Coria threw a racket that almost struck a ball-girl, there was compassion both for the ball girl as well as for the kind of tension that Coria was under.
But women’s tennis has always been more grimly serious. Women’s tennis has long lacked that element of compassion. Gasquet uses drugs and gets banned for a few weeks; in fact, he’s already back on the tour. Hingis uses drugs and is banned for two years and may never return. There is a lack of heart in women’s tennis, a lack of understanding of the pressures of success and achievement. At least that’s how it has always seemed to me. So I won’t at all be surprised if Serena receives further punishment on top of losing a match because of two disciplinary calls. That’s how women’s tennis rolls.
To be fair, had Serena stayed at the baseline and expressed her anger towards the lineswoman, her words may have been perceived as less threatening. What may have made it scary for the lineswoman was that Serena approached her directly, slashing the air with her racket, and apparently making verbal threats to stuff the tennis ball down her throat.
But did Serena’s race and size also play a role in this woman’s interpretation of threat? Of course it did. Of course it must have.
Sociologists have long-documented the general perception of Blacks as threatening. This is part of the thinking behind racial profiling. It’s the reason why the Huntington, PA Valley Club signed a contract allowing children to swim in their pool on Mondays, only to cancel it after the group of Black and Latino children showed up. It’s part of the circus of hysteria that greets every decision taken by Barack Obama, including such mundane ones as his offer to speak to the nation’s children, even when this has been done by most Presidents in recent history. And it may be why a lineswoman was unable to understand that a player was just blowing off steam because she was under pressure of losing a match to a woman who had been off the tour for two years.