Celebrating Serena Williams, Tennis Traditionalist

Serena Williams revived an old tradition in tennis in Flushing last night. She said some petty things to the chair umpire because she was angry and because she wanted to win—and because when you are not winning in a sport as lonely as tennis, there is only one person you can blame that is not yourself. That person is the chair umpire.

The way Serena spoke about Eva Asderaki, last night's chair umpire in the U.S. Open's women's final, was wrong. It was childish, and—especially in a sport that clings so dramatically to some sense of "tradition" and control, and especially in a sport that has a lot of fancy courtside microphones—out of order. Plus, Asderaki had made the right call by the rules of this particular tournament. But what Serena reminded us is that, despite a year-long break from the sport, she still cares furiously about tennis, and about winning. This attitude, and this way of expressing it, was in no way unprecedented.

In fact, it has endless precedent—it's just that it's almost solely among white male tennis players. Briefly, and excluding plenty of other examples: John McEnroe's famous rant at Wimbledon in '81 ("You cannot be serious!"), Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open in '91 (he called the chair umpire an "abortion"), Jeff Tarango at Wimbledon in '95 ("You're the most corrupt official in the game!"), and Andy Roddick at the Australian Open in '08 ("I'm going to speak ve-ry slow-ly so that you can understand me!") or at the U.S. Open last year.

Tennis breeds headcases. It's part of the sport's entertainment. Calling Serena "overwrought" is a little bit like calling a linebacker "aggressive."

But then again, women's tennis is a sport with the most predictable criticism script there is. That's because half of its fans and commentators have a wooden racket shoved up their asses, and the other half only tune in when Serena does something scandalous so that they can then type 140 characters about it (Michele Steele reported today that CBS's ratings for the women's final jumped 121 percent this year). The reactions are mundane, because they sound the same every time, and they are always a little bit off-putting, because they're usually sprinkled with the usual dosage of sexism and racism.

This is not how we treat the superstars of men's tennis. No one is capable, I guess, of adorning Serena with the kind of self-indulgent purple prose that's spilled all over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic after every match. Instead, we wait out another impropriety, and then we leap. In one episode this morning, Yahoo's Steve Czaban reportedly called Williams a bitch, suggested that the people who didn't criticize her were racist, and finally—drum roll—made fun of her body type. And since she lost to Sam Stosur in the U.S. Open final last night (6-2, 6-3), lots of other people called her a bitch, one Mary Carillo called her an "ass clown", and on Fox & Friends today, Gretchen Carlson wondered if Williams' tirade had a "racial undertone." (We have since sent her a working definition of the term "hater.")

This is the most persistent contradiction among tennis media and fans alike: They'll complain, every year, that the players have lost some kind of "edge" that they once had, usually referring to the Johnny Mac era. They'll point out that the majority of today's players are boring superstars (we'll allow that they really are) who play their points, shake their opponents' hands, and smile for the cameras. But whenever Serena disrupts that routine, everyone musters professions of disgust, even as no one really wants to look away. When asked about what she'd said to Asderaki, Serena wryly told reporters, "I guess I'll see it on YouTube." She knows the routine by now.

Let's try some appreciation this time around. Serena's tirade against the chair ump was honoring a tennis tradition—it's just not one that we tend to see honored by a muscular black woman very often. So when we do, we treat it for her as a definitive quality. Roddick's nastiness doesn't interfere with his puppy-dog image, and in retirement, McEnroe gets the aw-shucks treatment for his signature abuse.

The woman who is so often criticized for a lack of involvement in the Great American Tennis Cause, as I understand it, is only permitted to show passion for the sport if she's silent about it. Which is, if you really think about it, a rather impossible task for an athlete who sometimes gets competitive, which sometimes leads to anger. This is nothing new in sports; it is nothing new in tennis.

But the U.S. Open announced today that it would fine Serena $2,000 for last night's incident in Flushing. It was not deemed a "major offense," so she won't be suspended. This, of course, has set off a new wave of calculated disgust.

Tennis would rather that its stars—and especially its female stars—leave their hostility for subtle digs against opponents in post-match press conferences. Serena, unlike the snippy, sainted Federer, lauded the play of the opponent who beat her, and laughed through the awards ceremony.