A Brat Without Class

It seems like every commentator alive is having a say on Serena Williams’ meltdown in the USA Open tennis final. I guess it’s only fair that Swimwatch adds its voice to the noise. Regular Swimwatch readers probably suspect I have a predisposition to side with the athlete, especially in an argument between an athlete and an official. I admit that suspicion is true. Loyalty to those who play the game is highest on my list of sporting priorities, except on this occasion.

Like most of the world, I have had little personal contact with Serena Williams. I have said hello to her once. When Alison and I lived in Florida our apartment was in a community called the Delray Beach Racquet Club. Our back door opened out onto half a dozen all weather tennis courts. On my way home one evening I was surprised to hear thunderous whacks of a tennis ball coming from behind the tall green mesh fence that surrounded one of the courts. I thought I must check this out, this is not normal.

I opened the gate and walked into the court. I soon realised why the sounds were different. Going through an evening practice were Serena and her sister Venus Williams. I sat down and, for 15 minutes or so, watched in awe. The power, the skill, the training and the fitness were unbelievable. How their racquet strings withstood the force of each blow was impossible to believe. I even recovered a wayward ball and threw it back to Serena. She said, “Thank you” and I stupidly said, “Hello”.

However I guess events in Florida mean I can claim to have spoken to Serena Williams and have acted as her practice ball-boy.

But her behaviour in the 2018 USA final was inexcusable. And believe me I should know. In my younger days involved in swimming I have questioned official decisions on many occasions. Whenever things began to go against me I can well remember feeling a sense of frustration and anger. Frequently that escalated the dispute and resulted in accusations being made that I eventually regretted. I remember angrily telling the President of Athletics New Zealand, Arthur Eustace, that if he didn’t agree with what I wanted he would have “egg all over his face”.

In later years I have adopted a more sensible approach. Knocking quietly on the back door is usually more effective than beating down the front door. I would have thought an athlete as experienced as Serena Williams would have learned the same lesson. But it appears not.

She should be mature enough to have recognised the escalation moments that were leading her down an impossibly blind alley. The first of those was triggered by the decision of her coach to provide advice from the side-line. She was deducted a point for that indiscretion. Instead of getting on with the game she decided to debate the justice of the umpire’s call. That was dumb. The coach had erred. The rules required a penalty. It was a stupid argument.

Then Serena decided to smash her racket in frustration and accuse the umpire of picking on her because she was a woman. To make matters worse she brought her new baby into the debate by claiming that motherhood meant she would never cheat. The end result was that Serena lost a game and eventually the match.

So, what is wrong with what Serena did?

  1. Her coach did break the rules. Whether Serena used the information or not does not matter. It was enough that the coach was sending it out to the court where it could have been used. The moral is, if you are in the wrong, don’t keep digging.
  2. Rather than getting on with the game she decided to escalate the argument. That is seldom going to have a successful outcome.
  3. Without any evidence she accused the umpire of treating her worse than male players. That is not true. Serena was callously calling on the wider “Me Too” movement to justify her frustration. It was a cynical argument that undermined the cause of women who do have valid claims of mistreatment. Women everywhere should be appalled that one of their own would use their plight in order to win a tennis game.
  4. She decided to bring her baby into the argument. Serena Williams has received a typical American over-reaction to her tennis comeback after the birth of her daughter. What she has done was commendable but not unique. Here are some women that I can remember who have successfully combined motherhood with elite athletics; swimmers Dara Torres, Amanda Beard and Janet Evans, soccer player Christie Rampone, tennis player Lindsay Davenport, athlete Wilma Rudolph and marathoner Paula Radcliffe. Many mothers have gone on to compete successfully in all sorts of sports. But Serena was prepared to use her daughter to win a tennis game. Using a baby family member like that is inexcusable.

Those errors by the player are hard to forgive. They smack of a self-indulgent, spoilt brat. The USA Championship crowd that applauded her behaviour at the expense of her rival should be ashamed. National loyalty is one thing. Supporting spoilt and corrupt sportsmanship, applauding bad manners, booing a brave and well-behaved rival and cheering verbal and physical abuse is something altogether different. The influence of Trump has clearly extended to American tennis spectators. I would encourage the suggestion that umpires boycott future Serena matches, perhaps not forever but for at least a year. She has brought the sport into disrepute by behaviour way worse than the Sharapova case. Her punishment should be no less.

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