I wrote just a few days ago that we should continue to expect very strange things to happen at this U.S. Open, but I certainly wasn't expecting the events that occurred tonight in the semifinal match defending champion Serena Williams played against Kim Clijsters. And by that, I mean everything that happened.
Williams is fond of saying that she sometimes "goes crazy" at a major, referring to the times that she has been upset. But those upsets (defeats by her sister at Wimbledon notwithstanding) always occur in the first week. Once Williams gets to the second week, she just gets better, and until tonight, that pattern was fully evident.
Tonight's match was originally scheduled to take place yesterday, but a lengthy rain delay caused a postponement. Perhaps because of the long wait, Williams was obviously not herself when she stepped onto the court. Her usually superior second serve was just not there, she missed a lot of first serves, and she had to cope with the rapid and deep returns of her opponent.
Angry with herself for making so many errors, Williams broke her racquet after the first set, and was given a code violation warning. Clijsters won that set 6-4. Williams immediately broke Clijsters when the second set began, but she was then broken back. Though she continued to have trouble with her serve, Williams did begin to look much more like herself, and before long, the match became competitive. I think it's fair to say, in fact, that many spectators expected to see a third set.
At a dramatic point in that set, both women held at love. But Clijsters broke Williams at 5-all, and suddenly, Williams was serving at 15-30. She missed her first serve, and her second serve was called a foot fault. Williams did not think she made the error. Unfortunately, players cannot challenge foot faults--only shots. The call, which was not overruled by the chair umpire, gave Clijsters match point. That's when Williams lost it: She walked over to the lineswoman and, using a word widely considered obscene, threatened to shove the ball down the woman's throat. And then, racquet raised, she walked even closer to the lineswoman's chair.
That was the end of the tantrum, and Williams returned to her rightful place on the court. But by this time, the lineswoman had gotten up and reported the incident to the chair umpire. The tournament referee was called to the court, and since the verbal abuse was Williams' second violation of the match, she had to default a point to her opponent. That was, of course, match point, giving Clijsters a 6-4, 7-5 win. Clijsters looked stunned, and continued to look that way for some time.
There is a lot of doubt over whether Williams actually foot-faulted, which only makes the entire incident more troublesome. There is, of course, no excuse--ever--for threatening an official (or anyone), but when I saw Williams explode, I had to wonder: How close to the surface has this volcano been smoldering? For surely no one has been the victim of more ridiculous line calls and umpire passivity than Serena Williams.
There is no doubt that the use of electronic line calling came a little earlier than expected because of Williams' 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal against Jennifer Capriati. Then there was the now infamous "hand incident" involving Justine Henin in the semifinal of the 2003 French Open. And in the third round of this year's French Open, there was even an "arm incident" involving Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.
At no time, when any of these incidents occurred, has Williams been able to do anything but just shake her head, look exasperated, and--in the case of the 2003 French Open--shed some tears.
Was it, then, just a matter of time before years of holding in her on-court anger caught up with her? Williams was having an "off" night tonight, and her tension was palpable. This entire U.S. Open, on the women's side, reads like some type of strange astrological phenomenon, so I suppose we can hardly be that surprised that Williams finally unleashed her fury during this bizarre fortnight.
Clijsters was the better player tonight, and she earned her victory. Williams will now have to deal not only with the loss, but with the public consequences of her inappropriate behavior.