Thursday, September 6, 2007

LABOR DAY HAS PASSED, BUT NO CLASS AT FLUSHING MEADOW

It's hard to put into words my disappointment at the atrocious behavior of Serena Williams at her post-match press conference on Tuesday night after being handled rather easily by world #1 Justine Henin. The Williams sisters are very popular among younger sports fans, particularly those recently interested in tennis, but within the tennis world, there is little support for these two, particularly when they show little to no grace or respect towards their opponents when they lose.

It's one thing to be competitive and confident, and it's another to insult your opponent by suggesting that she made lucky shots and that this, and every match, for that matter, is yours to either win or lose. You may have this mentality before the match to put yourself in the right mindset, but what's done is done, and once you've been served like yesterday's lunch, the right thing to do is take a big bite of humble pie and live to fight another day.

Years ago I used to fully support Richard Williams in his complaint that Americans didn't seem to take to the Williams sisters the way they did to other American tennis players, particularly cute little blonde ones - in fact, it wouldn't have been a stretch to say that even cute blonde Russian players were more popular with Americans than the Williams sisters. Underlying this statement is, and always has been, the question of race -  are American sports fans ready to go ga-ga for a couple of black tennis stars? But it turns out that this lukewarm reception to the sisters from Compton may have less to do with their race, than with their attitude.

It's all well and good to stand on your tippy-toes and wave kisses to the crowd, like Mary Lou Retton at the '84 Olympics, when you win. And since kids don't tend to watch press conferences, or read interview transcripts (or much of anything these days, for that matter) they don't see the other side of Serena that has everyone who actually follows tennis so up in arms.

Does she honestly believe that Justine Henin was making "lucky" shots Tuesday night? Were these the same lucky shots she made at the French Open and Wimbledon, where she also handily beat Serena? And by the way, what's all this talk about luck? Are we talking about some journeyman who was given a wildcard into the main draw, or the deservedly #1 ranked tennis player in the world? Perhaps what really has Serena behaving so petulantly today is that there is no excuse for her failure this time around:
  1. She can't claim Henin cheated (as she did at the French Open 4 years ago)
  2. She can't claim she was injured (as she did at Wimbledon)
  3. She can't claim it's not her best surface (as she does at the French Open)
  4. She can't claim lack of preparation (since she won the Australian with a similar run-up)
The bottom line is this: she lost to a better player. Maybe not always a better player, but definitely Tuesday night. And that's all anyone expects her to say when she loses to a better player. Not that she lost due to her own mistakes, when in fact she was clearly outclassed. And not that her opponent made lucky shots, when in fact Henin raised her game, and Serena couldn't.

There is one thing tennis players hate, and that's when big name players think they're entitled to victories and titles because they have a big pedigree. Years ago, Pat Rafter got into it with Pete Sampras because each time he won something big, or beat Sampras, Sampras had some injury excuse. Sampras went so far as to say that it was "annoying" to see Rafter lift the US Open trophy in 1997, because he felt it was rightfully his.

Excuse me?

It's hard to give a great champion like Sampras a hard time, because he generally had a lot of class, and perhaps the comment was taken out of context. (BTW if you want to see the context of Serena's comments, here they are). But in sports, nothing rightfully belongs to anyone - the reason we play the game is to determine who deserves to win, otherwise we can hand out the trophy and prize money at the same time they do the draw.

And even if injuries are a factor, we don't know what the winning player is experiencing, and anyone who's played highly competitive sports will tell you that they're always carrying some kind of knock or discomfort or injury that presents a challenge. That's part of sports, and not an excuse for losing. If you're fit enough to be on the court, then you're fit enough to win. End of story.

Serena should take a lesson from Sharapova in this regard - even though we know that this woman is completely in love with herself, she at least has the good sense to FEIGN humility when she loses, and even when she wins. Yes, I get tired of her phony, "all this for little ol' me?" routine, but to be fair when she loses, she doesn't sound off like a spoiled child who thinks she deserves to win every match regardless of how well her opponent plays. She congratulates her opponent and moves on.

And one last thing...she should not, as some have suggested, have skipped the press conference. She should have just been a little more gracious and honest, because that's what is expected of anyone in any disappointing situation, and not just big tennis stars.

Good riddance to you, young lady. Come back next year when you've learned some manners.
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