Monday, September 12, 2011

Worthy of the Word "Champion"...

To the surprise of nearly everyone (perhaps even herself), Australian Samantha Stosur captured the U.S. Open women's championship last night, stopping heavily favored Serena Williams from her magical comeback march (and in straight sets, to boot). Stosur played magnificently, challenging the somewhat lethargic Williams on nearly every point, conquering the nerves and errors that characterized her first Grand Slam final last year, when she lost the French Open to Francesca Schiavone.

While the story of the women's championship should be Stosur's impressive play, it is her opponent's behavior during the match that once again has caught the attention of the media. Of course, Williams' behavior at the Open is somewhat legendary: during the 2009 U.S. Open, Williams' outburst against a lineswoman cost her the semi-finals against Kim Clijsters, who went on to win the title.

This year's outburst was slightly less toxic but equally as disappointing. Serena was serving at 30-40 in the first game of the second set when she hit what she believed was a winner and shrieked "Come on!" in approval. But she called out before the point was over, while Stosur was still making a futile attempt to get her racquet on the ball. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki gave the point, and the early break that came with it, to the Australian.

Serena was understandably displeased, though she had no ground on which to stand. The call was obvious. Serena disagreed and became more incensed when she thought that the umpire, Asderaki, was the same official who was in the chair for her infamous 2009 blowup at the tournament. (She wasn't.)

"Aren't you the one who screwed me over last time here?" Serena asked Asderaki after being told of the point penalty. "Yeah, you are."

At that point, the crowd rushed to Williams' defense, and it seemed to energize her. She broke Stosur back to even the set at 1-1, and then held serve in the next game. Commentators John McEnroe, Mary Carrillo, and Dick Enberg—as well as most people watching—wondered whether this would be the turning point in the match.

But Serena wasn't content to leave well enough alone. During the next two changeovers, she continued berating Asderaki, with comments that included:
"A code violation because I expressed who I am? We're in America last I checked. Am I gonna get violated for a water? Really, don't even look at me. I promise you, don't look at me because I am not the one. Don't look my way."

"If you ever see me walking down the hall, walk the other way. Because you're out of control. Totally out of control. You're a hater, you're unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing. And I never complain. Wow."
Fortunately, Stosur showed true class and composure during the match, breaking Serena to go up 4-3 and then winning the two remaining games to take the championship, 6-2, 6-3.

Serena was gracious in defeat, praising Stosur's play and acknowledging that she outplayed her during the entire match, but when asked by Mary Joe Fernandez about the controversy, she said, "Well, I hit a winner that I guess didn't count." When told about the hindrance rule that caused Asderaki to reward the point to Stosur, Williams said, "I guess I have to read my rule book."

Serena Williams may have won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, but her behavior is not worthy of a champion. She feels as if the rules should never apply to her, and that she is entitled to berate anyone who doesn't kowtow to her. Had she won this championship because her behavior intimidated Stosur (anyone who watched Serena threaten the diminutive lineswoman in 2009 could certainly feel intimidated), the tournament would have had a serious black mark on its record. This type of behavior may have been colorful and amusing in the days of McEnroe and Connors, but it contradicts the sport's genteel beginnings, as well as any notion of sportsmanship.

As I've said before, professional athletes should act like professionals. A lawyer cannot berate a judge for a ruling they don't like, nor can a teacher shake their finger at a principal or other administrator. It shouldn't be acceptable here, and if the WTA has any backbone, they will suspend Williams for this recent outburst. (Following the 2009 U.S. Open, Williams was put on two years' "probation" with the threat that she could be suspended for any repeat performance.)

Congratulations to Samantha Stosur on her victory. Sometimes, the better player—and the better person—can triumph.

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