Don’t buy into Ser­ena’s melo­drama on the court

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - GENE LYONS Arkansas Times colum­nist Gene Lyons is a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award win­ner and coau­thor of “The Hunt­ing of the Pres­i­dent” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eu­gene­lyons2@ya­

Un­less you’re a se­ri­ous ten­nis fan, you prob­a­bly don’t know that ex­actly one player was ex­pelled from the 2017 U.S. Open: Fabio Fognini, for calling a chair um­pire a “whore” and worse in Ital­ian dur­ing a los­ing match. He was also fined $96,000 and threat­ened with ban­ish­ment from Grand Slam events if he didn’t quit act­ing like a punk on the court.

Chas­tened and apolo­get- ic, Fognini re­turned to Flush­ing Mead­ows in 2018 as a No. 14 seed, where he was up­set in the third round with no histri­on­ics. Ev­i­dently, he’s learned to ac­cept de­feat.

So it’s sim­ply not true, as Ser­ena Wil­liams as­serted through tears af­ter los­ing to bril­liant, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka — also a “woman of color,” for those of you keep­ing score at home — that men are never pun­ished for bad be­hav­ior in pro­fes­sional ten­nis. It hap­pens fre­quently, al­though these days the (mostly Euro­pean) top male play­ers gen­er­ally be­have like adults. No­body de­fended Fognini.

So spare me the John McEn­roe videos. That was 30 years ago, and McEn­roe’s grown up in the in­ter­val, al­though it of­ten seemed he never would. McEn­roe him­self paid mul­ti­ple bad con­duct fines, but was dis­qual­i­fied only once, from the 1990 Aus­tralian Open.

A very great player, Ser­ena Wil­liams has had sev­eral mem­o­rable melt­downs at the Open. The worst was in 2009, when she loomed over a diminu­tive line judge shout­ing, “I swear to God, I’m f—-ing go­ing to take this f—-ing ball and shove it down your f—-ing throat.” Game, set and match to Bel­gium’s Kim Cli­jsters, who co­in­ci­den­tally went on to be­come the first mother ever to win the Open.

Af­ter­ward, Ser­ena said the line judge was fool­ish to fear her, as she’s never been a vi­o­lent per­son.

So no, I’m not buy­ing Ser­ena’s 2018 melo­drama, and nei­ther should any­body else. Half-drunk, boor­ish U.S. Open crowds are bad enough. But an ex­pe­ri­enced world-class ath­lete like her de­lib­er­ately pro­vok­ing the crowd was a shame­ful dis­play of poor sports­man­ship.

The kid was beat­ing her; Ser­ena couldn’t take it.

Should chair um­pire Car­los Ramos, a no­to­ri­ous stick­ler for the rules, have ig­nored her coach’s ob­vi­ous hand sig­nals? Ser­ena later claimed she never saw them. But ESPN close-ups showed her re­peat­edly look­ing in his di­rec­tion — prob­a­bly what drew Ramos’ at­ten­tion in the first place.

As he later ad­mit­ted, Coach Pa­trick Mouratoglou was def­i­nitely sig­nal­ing her to get to the net, and Ser­ena was do­ing it, with some suc­cess. He al­i­bied that ev­ery­body does it. But it’s def­i­nitely against the rules.

No penalty, just a warn­ing. Nev­er­the­less, Ser­ena lost it, heat­edly deny­ing she’d ever cheated, which nei­ther Ramos nor any­body else said she did. Af­ter she kept go­ing on about it, Ramos said, “I know that.”

Af­ter miss­ing a back­hand and los­ing her next ser vice game, how­ever — a crit­i­cal point in the match — Ser­ena smashed her racket to bits on the court. Ramos as­sessed her a point penalty. He re­ally had no choice. The score was now 2-3 with Osaka serv­ing. Four games had been played since the ini­tial warn­ing, but Wil­liams wouldn’t let it go. “You owe me an apol­ogy,” she said to Ramos, loudly enough for the crowd to hear. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daugh­ter and I stand for what’s right for her.”

The na­tion­al­is­tic crowd be­gan to boo. Osaka held serve, 3-3. Then she broke Ser­ena’s serve to go ahead 4-3 and Wil­liams com­pletely lost it. On the changeover, she stood up and pointed in Ramos’ face, re­peat­edly de­mand­ing that the um­pire apol­o­gize for some­thing he’d never said.

Ramos wasn’t beat­ing her; Osaka was. “How dare you in­sin­u­ate that I was cheat­ing?” she said loudly. “And you stole a point from me, you’re a thief, too.”

Ramos had had enough. He as­sessed a third code vi­o­la­tion for ver­bal abuse: an automatic game penalty, 5-3. Ser­ena called for the tour­na­ment ref­eree, lead­ing to a lengthy, con­fus­ing de­lay while the jeers rained down.

Should Ramos have given her one last warn­ing, as Chris Evert thought? Maybe so. On the other hand, un­like her op­po­nent, Wil­liams is a 36-year-old tour vet­eran. She’s sup­posed to know the rules. She’s also, how­ever — like a lot of ten­nis pro­fes­sion­als — a pam­pered child­hood prodigy who trav­els the world in a celebrity bub­ble, sur­rounded by flunkies, pro­tected by money, and tempted to self-dra­ma­tize.

Ser­ena didn’t blurt out an an­gry ex­ple­tive; she made an hour-long spec­ta­cle of it. Amid the avalanche of com­men­tary, I thought the great Martina Navratilova, who cer­tainly un­der­stands “feel­ing like an out­sider in the game of ten­nis,” put it best.

“I think the ques­tion we have to ask our­selves is this: What is the right way to be­have to honor our sport and to re­spect our op­po­nents?”

Osaka ac­cepted the U.S. Open tro­phy with tears run­ning down her face as the crowd shame­fully booed her. Ser­ena owes her a big apol­ogy.

I’m guess­ing she’ll never get one.

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