Monday, February 24, 2014


The hindrance rule is almost always controversial for many reasons.  First: most people don't know the letter of the law, and as a result, interpretations of the rule, by players and commentators alike, are often based in ignorance.  Second, while the letter of the law is not generally well known, the objective of fairness is, thus when the proper application of the law is misinterpreted, an unfair result is incorrectly assumed.  And finally, when one is ignorant of the rule, unaware that it has been applied properly, and left with only the assumption of having been aggrieved, this tends to linger.

And like an unwelcome guest, controversy loves nothing more than to hang around...sometimes for years.

But these controversies are all based in the same underlying problem - ignorance of the rule.  And ignorance has definitely caused the controversy over the case of Serena Williams versus Justine Henin in the 2003 Roland Garros semi-final to linger.

In this match, Serena Williams was up a break 4-2 in the third, serving to put herself one game from the final.  Though there had been a lot of noise from the crowd in between points (and in particular a great deal of encouragement to the francophone Henin), Serena started her serve motion anyway, however Henin put her hand up to indicate that she wasn't ready.  After dumping the serve in the net, Serena then asked the umpire for a first serve because Henin had put her hand up.  

Oblivious to what Serena and millions of television viewers had plainly seen, the umpire (Stefan Fransson) didn't even bother to ask Henin if she had put her hand up, and with nothing offered from her, he called for a second serve.  Thus the narrative was that Henin cheated by not admitting she had put her hand up, and in doing so, had so discombobulated Serena that she proceeded to lose 5 out of the next six games, the set, the match and her shot at immortality.

But doesn't the hindrance rule apply here?  Well yes and no, because the issue is fairness - namely, would it have been fair to award a first serve, or by the letter of the law, the point directly, to Serena in this case?

For an explanation of the hindrance rule itself, I posted this three years ago.  The important thing to remember is that there are two parts of the rule:  (1) whether there was a hindrance in the first place (which is a subjective matter of opinion) and (2) whether to replay the point or award it to the hindered player (the other a matter of fact).  In this case, the real question is whether a hindrance occurred before we get to the question of the remedy.

Now, the only way Henin's hand could have hindered Serena was if she saw it before she hit her serve, otherwise how could it have been a hindrance if she didn't even see it until after the serve?  We can speculate as to whether she would have admitted to having seen the hand go up if she had burned one up the T for an ace, but if, as would have to be the case for any remedy, she saw Henin's hand up before she served, she should have stopped before the point began - namely she shouldn't have served.  But she did serve, therefore either she didn't see the hand up, or she saw it up, but served anyway!  Not exactly sporting of Serena, and in either case, falling short of a hindrance.

So actually Serena has got it wrong on multiple fronts:  first, she can't claim she saw the hand up before the serve, because if she did, she shouldn't have served.  Second, she can't claim she saw it after the serve, but it somehow hindered her before the serve - that's just illogical.  And finally, although it could be argued that it was a hindrance if Henin's hand went up after Serena started serving (in which case it's during the point and is a hindrance) the redress Serena should have been asking for was to be awarded the point directly, for an intentional hindrance, and not a let for an unintentional hindrance.

So even if Henin had admitted to raising her hand, in all likelihood the umpire would have incorrectly ruled the point be replayed, even though she intentionally put her hand up during the point - in which case she should have lost the point.  And, although Serena still would have been aggrieved by such a ruling, I guarantee nobody would have said boo, even though it's a clear error of law.  Then all of the bitterness and resentment Serena has since professed denied, would have been silenced even though she would still have been rooked on the call.

So in the end, I believe:
  1. Henin raised her hand after the serve started, however
  2. Serena didn't see it, therefore there was no hindrance, and 
  3. The umpire, not having seen the "non-hindrance" himself was correct in ordering a second serve, and
  4. Henin, despite not admitting to raising her hand, ultimately got the right decision.
But that doesn't stop Mary Carillo (and John McEnroe for that matter) from continually getting the call wrong from the commentator's box, when they really should know better.
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