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US Open: Serena Foot Fault Controversy

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

CBS coverage of Serena Williams' foot fault vs. Kim Clijsters, US Open semis

It took her two days, but Serena Williams has finally issued an apology for shaking her racket at a lineswoman, and threatening violence with a tennis ball, for a foot fault call in a crucial moment in Williams' semi-final match against Kim Clijsters at the US Open last Saturday. Serena may have done so because she finally realized that her reaction was an "inappropriate outburst," as she said in her statement. It also may be because she faces additional penalties for her unsportsmanlike conduct, including a possible suspension from a Grand Slam event. She's already been fined $10,000....a drop in the bucket for Williams, who earned $560,000 for her singles and doubles accomplishments at the US Open.

Serena's not the first tennis player to use foul language on the court, and to berate officials. Jimmy Connors famously called a chair umpire "an abortion." We all remember John McEnroe's tirades. And just yesterday, during the men's final at the Open, Roger Federer used an expletive while arguing with the chair ump during a changeover. The usually calm, cool and collected Fed was unhinged when his opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, took his time challenging a line call. Federer told ump Jake Garner, "Don't tell me to be quiet, OK? When I want to talk, I talk. I don't give a **** what he said."

There's a reason why Federer is unlikely to get fined, as Williams did. The exchange was with an ump, not a linesperson, who doesn't have the authority to engage in a back-and-forth with players. Federer had not been given a previous warning for unsportsmanlike behavior. And while Fed's remarks were bossy and crass, they don't rise to the level of Williams'. She threatened bodily harm to the lineswoman. Chair umps can fend for themselves when it comes to dealing with players, but the ump at the Williams/Clijsters match had to take action against Williams in defense of a member of her crew.

Serena Williams is one of toughest players of the mental tennis game out there. She usually doesn't sweat the momentum swings of a game, always believing that she will prevail. Her loss of control was surprising, and her vitriol was out of line.

More surprising, though, is many pundits' opinion that the foot fault call itself was (ahem) out of line. Tennis great John McEnroe said, "You can't call that there." Another commentator, on a European feed of the US Open coverage, said, "Is that necessary?" Tom Perrotta, senior editor at Tennis Magazine, said in a blog post that foot fault calls are "bogus," and are unwarranted at the pro level. He said unlike club players, pro-level players gain little advantage when stepping into the court and onto the service line. He hoped the brouhaha would lead the United States Tennis Association to re-visit the foot fault. I'd provide a link to the blog, but it appears www.tennis.com removed the post.

Good thing, too, because Perrotta's wrong. So is McEnroe. There's a rule in tennis that a player's feet cannot touch the baseline while they're going through their service motion. That rule stands, regardless of whether it's second serve, 15-30, 5-6 in the second set of the US Open women's semi-finals. The great Serena Williams shouldn't get a pass on a foot fault. It is not a "bogus call."

We'll never be able to "fact check" the lineswoman on her call. There's no videotape that clearly shows the position of Serena Williams' feet, from the vantage point of the lineswoman. However, she was in the best position to see whether Williams touched the baseline. And even if Williams' sneaker edged past the white edge just a tiny bit, it still counts as a foot fault. Tennis is a game of inches. If a ball clips a line by just a fraction of an inch, it's still considered in, as fans and players know from watching those Hawkeye or Shot Spot electronic reviews on the main courts.

The foot fault may have robbed Williams of a point, but it should not have stopped her from playing out the game. It's too bad that the match ended that way, robbing Clijsters of a celebration, and Williams of a chance to get back in the game. It's also very disheartening that so many people have reacted with racist invective at Serena Williams. Many of the comments posted on YouTube are ugly.

Serena says she would like to give the lineswoman "a big ol' hug." After seeing the nation's reaction to her outburst, she probably needs one, too. However, she was still wrong to berate the lineswoman like she did. And commentators are wrong to suggest her reaction was excusable, because no one should be getting a foot fault call at the US Open.

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