There’s no more bitter pill to swallow than losing. If you’re a competitive athlete with a commitment to excellence, then you probably hate losing with a passion. This is normal. Like it or not however, losing is part of life and an integral part of becoming a champion. What this means is that when it happens, you have to face up to it like a champion: With dignity, class and good sportsmanship. This is NOT what Serena Williams did in the later stages of her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters Friday night at the US Open in New York.
Down one set, behind 4 games to 5 in the second and deciding set and down 15 – 30 on her serve, Williams was called for a foot fault, making the score 15 – 40 and giving Clijsters two match points. Suddenly Serena seemed to come unglued. She approached the female lines-person who dared call her on that foot fault and began shaking her racket in her direction while using colorful words and phrases that seemed to get bleeped out by the TV station. She was clearly emotionally hi-jacked and if looks and words could kill, this poor woman would have expired on the spot!
Appropriately, the official approached the chair umpire and reported exactly what had just transpired and how she had felt threatened by what Serena had said to her. There was a quick conference with the tournament director and it was determined that Serena should be assessed a point penalty for her unsportsmanlike conduct. Down 15 -40, this point penalty meant that the match was now over!
Personally I like both Williams sisters. From where I sit, I think they’re amazing athletes and generally good people. However, Serena’s behavior on this very public stage was both ugly and embarrassing. Her later “public apology”issued in a statement to the media seemed to lack any real remorse, especially as it was related to this lines-person. “Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly.”
Here we have a basic understatement. Yes, Serena, you did handle the situation VERY POORLY and in fact, in a very un-champion-like way. As a professional athlete and champion, you can not afford to let your emotions steer your ship. Watching you end up “on the rocks” with your bad behavior is an embarrassment to yourself and the game of tennis.
In fact, it seemed like the entire match Williams was teetering on the brink of this meltdown. After she lost the first set, a frustrated Serena angrily smashed her racket to the court, breaking it and costing her a code violation warning. What did her poor racket ever do to her? This is not the kind of role modeling we expect from someone on prime time. This is not the dignity and good sportsmanship that we expect from a seasoned competitor. Like it or not, professional athletes have a responsibility to control themselves and their emotions, and to conduct themselves with class.
It’s one thing to be passionate and an intense competitor. However, it’s a whole different thing to be a poor sport and bad loser. Williams’ behavior cheapened Clijster’s hard fought victory and cheated the fans of a clean, exciting ending. This is the kind of behavior we might expect from an overly competitive, immature adolescent, NOT from a mature, seasoned woman. We can only hope and trust that Serena will learn and grow from this experience.