x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Low fine the price of keeping Serena Williams in tennis

It was unsurprising that tennis authorities did not come down hard on Serena Williams following her outburst at the US Open given how much the sport needs her.

Serena Williams escaped with a small fine for her behaviour in the US Open women's singles final.
Serena Williams escaped with a small fine for her behaviour in the US Open women's singles final.

After losing the US Open final, Serena Williams was hit with a US$2,000 (Dh7,345) fine for berating the chair umpire during her match against Samantha Stosur. It seemed like an open-and-shut case.

Yet any time Williams is involved, things are never that simple.

Chris Evert, the former tennis great and one of only three women in the open era to win more majors than Williams (18 to 13), said she "was so surprised how disrespectful and rude" Williams was to Eva Asderaki, the umpire involved. Evert said the $2,000 fine was "like dinner for Serena".

Evert was not far off, considering the runner-up's share in the final was $900,000, and that Williams came into the tournament already well above $20 million in career earnings.

But more interesting than whether the fine was too light for Williams is whether it is enough to be effective for any player in an era when prize money has climbed into the stratosphere. More interesting still might be whether any other player would have been fined for saying so little.

For background purposes, this is how Brian Earley, the tournament referee, settled on $2,000 after talking with several grand slam and US Tennis Association officials: the standard fine for run-of-the-mill verbal abuse is $1,500; the maximum is $10,000.

A few of those officials described Williams's outburst as not being worthy of a fine. But because this is hardly the first time Williams has acted out, and because her memorable 2009 US Open tirade was anything but run-of-the-mill - "If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat," she shouted at a line judge — a consensus emerged to treat her like a repeat offender. Thus, the extra $500.

Nothing Williams said this time was remotely obscene or threatening. It began after Williams yelled "Come on!" to pump herself up after firing an apparent winner against Stosur. Because her opponent somehow managed to get a racket on the ball - although she wasn't close to returning it - the umpire invoked the hindrance rule and awarded the point to Stosur. Williams then launched volley after verbal volley at Asderaki, saying: "If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way, because you're out of control."

And: "You're a hater, and you're just unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing?"

And: "Give me a code violation because I expressed my emotion? We're in America last time I checked. Really, don't even look at me, don't look my way."

Williams did not shake hands with Asderaki after the match, though she was gracious in defeat and toward Stosur. Afterward, she said only: "I guess I'll see it on YouTube."

It is worth a look, since lost in the ensuing controversy was perhaps the most interesting moment of all.

By all rights, Stosur should not have even reached the shot, and if she hadn't, the umpire almost certainly does not call hindrance. It is a tribute not just to how well she was playing, but how unruffled. When the point ends, she simply heads for the deuce court and prepares to play the next point.

"Everything was happening so fast," Stosur said later. "I was just trying to get the ball and before I knew it, then there was all of that commotion up at the net. I just tried to think about what I was doing for the next point and get on with it, really."

Williams took plenty of heat for deflecting the spotlight from the winner, but Stosur did not seem bothered by that, either. In her post-match news conference, she lauded Williams: "Serena, you are a fantastic player, great champion and have done wonders for our sport."

That message was not wasted on tournament officials. Because of her 2009 tirade, Williams was initially fined the maximum $10,000, then bumped all the way up to $82,500 after a review and placed on probation for the 2010 and 2011 grand slam seasons.

Another major violation would have cost her the 2012 grand slam season.

Television ratings for this final were up 121 per cent from last year, when Kim Clijsters beat Vera Zvonareva. No one else moves the needle the way Williams does. Not the top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, who has yet to win a grand slam, nor the women who won majors - Clijsters at the Australian, Li Na at the French and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon - while Williams was recuperating from a career-threatening foot injury and life-threatening blood clots.

All that attention, needless to say, comes with a price. During Sunday's outburst, Williams yelled at Asderaki: "Aren't you the one who screwed me over the last time I was here? You have it out for me?"

The answer to both questions was no. But it is not hard to see why, sometimes, Williams might feel that way.

* Associated Press