Sunday, September 13, 2009

Game over: Serena versus the line judge

As a retired competitive wheelchair tennis player, I saw my share of tossed rackets and profanity on court during the decade I played the sport. I saw players hurl their rackets to the ground in exasperation after a bad play and would joke that I couldn't because mine was duct taped on. I saw them question line calls. I heard profanity and a few tirades.

At one tournament I played down south, the line official told us before the match began that he was a Baptist and said that there would be a penalty for any cursing on his court. I knew my opponent had a habit of cursing and realized this could be an issue. In the northeast where I generally played, none of the officials called him on it. In the second set, first game, my opponent lost his cool and cursed. The official issued a warning. In the second set, third game, my opponent cursed again. The official walked over to him and said "Now I told you, I don't want to hear any of that" and gave him a point penalty. " My opponent did not curse again.

This morning some people are questioning the calls during the Williams-Clijsters match last night. Serena Williams, who was warned by an official when she threw her racket to the ground, approached a line official after a foot fault was called and used profanity, pointing her racket at the female official. I couldn't hear what was said, although the microphones apparently picked up some of it, which papers are reporting.

The rules are there for a reason. Behavior that is not allowed on the court is usually distracting to an opponent and falls under the category of unsportsmanlike behavior. It is also true that it can be distracting to officials or make their jobs impossible to do. A tennis match requires that officials maintain control.

Why? Because as a former player, I can tell you that the game of tennis isn't just physically demanding. It requires the ability to think, to strategize. Having no parameters on behavior would be like trying to play chess with your opponent jumping up and down and cursing after a move. It's both distracting and unfair. Worse yet, such antics are used intentionally by some players to regain control of a match when things don't go their way. I've seen it time and time again in matches where officials didn't make calls they should have. I once had an opponent disappear for a half hour leaving me in the 90 degree heat on a court. The official didn't call my opponent on her long bathroom break and wouldn't allow me to get into the shade. Although I was ahead by a set, I was almost unable to play due to overheating when she returned and lost the match. I found out later she was sitting most of the time in front of a cooling fan inside the building by a ladies' room.

So there are reasons why rules should be enforced. Sometimes as a player you just have to play on even though you disagree with the call by an official. Serena, as a professional tennis player, should know that. When you walk (or roll) onto a court in a USTA match, you agree to abide by the rules, whether the prize money is fifty dollars for a wheelchair tennis player or - well- lots more for an able bodied one.

She's not the only player, however, to lose a match due to unsportsmanlike conduct. John McEnroe was defaulted in a masters match in 2008 after four calls.

Update: Serena Williams has issued an apology for her behavior on court.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty disgusting that the ref didn't allow you to go in the shade, given that heat like that can be difficult for anyone to sit in for a long period (I know this being a truck/van driver), let alone a quad with body temperature problems. Don't wheelchair sport refs know about these issues or did they just not care?

Examples of bad sportsmanship in tennis are well-known, but my favourite example of good sportsmanship came from a woman who was on the circuit in the late 1990s whose name I can't remember, but she had a father who kept shouting from the sidelines and abusing her opponents. She took action to have him banned from matches.

BTW - your opponent in the south was a male? In singles? Is that normal?

Wheelie Catholic said...

Because there were so few players at some tournaments, we often played by division rather than gender. We also didn't play quad to quad, but quads played against paras, so I had to play male paras. Made it challenging!

The USTA officials were very spotty about knowing wheelchair tennis rules and/or caring about such things as what a quad needed. I noticed after the USTA started officiating that many of the quad players no longer came to the local tournaments, but I'm not sure if there was a connection there. I do know there were more accommodations provided informally by the players prior to USTA involvement and the level of ableism from some officials was nauseating at times.