Serena’s Meltdown

Even after the NFL’s opening weekend and Novak Djokovic’s dominating performance in the men’s final, the sports world wants to talk about Serena Williams, perhaps because the sports world is equally divided on the subject. I won’t repeat the particulars, so well known by now, but I will emphasize my view that the assessed penalties in no way contributed to her loss to Naomi Osaka. The point penalty was given at the start of Osaka’s service game – hardly a pivotal moment – which Osaka handily then won at love. The more important game penalty was also given on Osaka’s service game, which she was likely, but not certainly, to have won, based on the success she had serving during the match. In the immediately following game, down 5-3, Serena played her best tennis, holding serve at love. It appeared that she would take this fighting spirit, plus her Grand Slam experience, and break Osaka at 5-4, but she couldn’t. With all the distractions, and the crowd rooting against her, Osaka hit two service winners and closed out the set and the match.
There’s no question that Serena would not have been as upset if she had been winning. Her meltdown was undoubtedly amplified by her frustration at losing to a 20-year-old player she thought she should beat. It was losing her serve at 3-1 that made her internalize the injustice she felt for the first code violation. Had she won that game I doubt any of this would have happened. But the biggest contributor to Serena’s outburst, in my view, was her sense of entitlement. She has been so glorified, put on the cover of Vogue, anointed as the greatest ever, marveled over for her motherhood, that her attitude was, “how you can do this to me? I am Serena Williams!” At 36, most athletes are more mature and have gone past “the-world-is-against-me.”
It is fair to quibble with the umpire’s assessing a code violation for coaching from the stands if he didn’t informally caution Serena first – although there’s no reason to think she would have responded any better to such a warning. The penalty for smashing her racquet was automatic and necessary. Otherwise, are we – and our young tennis players – to think this is acceptable behavior on the tennis court? At this point, Serena has to rein her emotions in, say this is the finals of the U.S.Open and I’m not going to be distracted. Instead, she got ugly, really ugly. Even if she were in the right, which she wasn’t, it was not her place to demand an apology from the referee and berate him. Worse, she brought her infant daughter into the discussion and accused the referee of sexism (which we subsequently learned was baseless, based upon his actions toward male players). Even after the match, when she could have reflected on the outrageousness of her behavior, she posited herself as a champion for women.
Granted, I have never been a fan of Serena’s and watch women’s tennis, if at all, mainly in the hope that someone less arrogant and bullying will beat her. But even so, I was shocked by the things she said to the chair umpire, who was just doing his job, however imperfectly. Who is she to say, “You will never do one of my matches again”? Can you think of another sport where the athlete could or would treat an official this way? And Serena, I fear, based on the media reaction I’ve seen, will get away with it.

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