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Thursday, September 17, 2009

For Serena Wiliams, the Pique of a Fine Career

If Serena Williams is genuinely contrite, she won't fight further disciplinary action from tennis authorities, even a six-figure fine or a suspension. The integrity of the sport demands a heavier penalty, and her acceptance of that fact would show that the code of conduct means something to her. For years, Williams has treated the game as a means to an end, but whether she actually gives a four-letter word about the greater good of it remains in question. This is her chance to answer.

It's sometimes hard to know what Williams believes in between her public facetiousness and canny media manipulations. She can seem to be just passing through tennis on her way to more fascinating things, such as clothing design or acting or MTV. She comes on like a bad Audrey Hepburn pose, batting her eyes and feigning vapidity as she chatters shop-til-you-drop sound bite nonsense. The awful irony of her threat to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat in the U.S. Open was that at least it was a sincere expression of who she really is: a competitor of roaring fury. It was far more genuine than her tardy apology and offer to give the lineswoman "a big old hug" or her continual rationalizations that the lineswoman had it coming for making a bad call.

The only word we need to hear from Williams is "inexcusable." The only gesture we need from her is acquiescence to a suspension, the standard punishment in any sport for menacing an official. The International Tennis Federation is currently "reviewing" the tirade, but what is there to review? This isn't the Zapruder film, her lips were readable and her words were audible over the courtside microphones: She cursed and threatened physical violence. Thus far she has suffered a mere $10,000 fine. She has handbags that cost more. Williams should help the ITF out: She should call Bill Babcock, the man in charge of her review, and volunteer for a suspension because she wishes not just to apologize, but to atone, in the best interest of the game.

You don't win nearly a dozen Grand Slam titles without some kind of fierce commitment. But it's unclear whether Williams's commitment extends beyond herself. Does she subscribe to the underlying values of tennis? Does she care about the overall health of the game, does she wish for it to grow, recommend that others play it, and respect its admittedly hushed, old-fashioned standards of civility?

Williams and her defenders argue her conduct was no worse than that of some the sport's infamous others. But John McEnroe at his worst never crossed the line that she did, though he came close at the 1987 U.S. Open when he intimidated and cussed officials -- after which he was rightly suspended for two months -- and at the 1990 Australian Open, when he was tossed for similar offenses. As McEnroe himself said of such behavior, "I can't defend the indefensible."

There is a lot of dry-rotted old junk in tennis, and it's been a pleasure to watch Williams invigorate it. She has challenged its bigotry and conventional way of doing things and poked a finger in the eye of its stuffier pretensions, particularly its dress code.

But its code of conduct is not outdated junk. To the people who love it, tennis is an ethic. The relationship between muscles and morality in the sport is very clear, and it fosters exemplary sportsmanship, despite the occasional presence of a John McEnroe. That's because personal responsibility and culpability are part and parcel of the game. Junior players call their own lines "in" or "out" and act as their own judges. This grassroots honor system relies on the good behavior of stars such as Williams.

The game teaches command of yourself -- and it teaches that self-control is not just about you but about respect for others. It's why those words from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" are engraved above the door at Wimbledon, about treating "triumph and disaster just the same." There are even better lines in the poem. How about, "If you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you" Or, "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue."

Williams has always played the game on her own terms, and for the most part admirably. She gives her all on the court, which is the ultimate form of respect. At times she's lost her focus, but that's because she insists on maintaining her outside interests and cultivating a career beyond tennis. You have to respect that too. There is something deeply interesting about her refusal to buy into the traditional myopia of a tennis champ. She declines to be obliged to the game. Her tennis ambition comes and goes like a huge gust of weather. That's just who she is. She's like a hurricane season.

The only trouble with Williams's fierce individuality is that it can come perilously close to selfishness. Her Open tantrum occurred in the heat of the moment, but it took her two days to properly apologize to the woman she humiliated. If you really care about the game beyond your own self-interest, shouldn't you watch the women's final and help promote it? Instead of doing a cameo at a music awards show, and Twittering your fans to tune in?

Anyone who struggles with his or her temper -- and you're talking to someone who's thrown her share of profane tantrums -- sympathizes with what happened to Williams and knows that her meltdown was an aberration, a brief personal failure in what Kipling calls "the unforgiving minute." But anyone with a temper also knows that it was a failure based in a kind of selfishness. People who lose their temper let their emotions, their urgency, their needs, trump everyone else's.

No one mattered in that moment to Williams -- not the lineswoman, not her opponent. It was an act of self-absorption. Williams is not wholly selfish -- her charitable efforts prove that -- and the episode was surely not a total reflection of who she is. But up to this point, she has seemed to think that what happened at the Open was all about her. This is a perfect opportunity for her to show she understands it's about others, too, and to give something back to the game.

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