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Judging, On and Off the Court

Tennis fans are still buzzing about the unbelievable scene that unfolded late last night at the US Open tournament.  Kim Clijsters faced Serena Williams in one of the semi-final matches.  Clijsters was dominating Williams, to the latter’s enormous and obvious frustration.  Clijsters was leading 6-4, 6-5, with Williams serving at 15-30.  On her second serve, the line judge called a foot fault, handing the point to Clijsters and setting her up with a match point.

And then all hell broke loose.  Since I’ve posted here before on relationships among sport, law, and governance (basketball here, soccer here, “artificial” assistance here), last night’s events offer an irresistable prompt.  What might lawyers and scholars take from this episode?

“All hell” consists of the following:  Serena Williams broke her preparation to serve again and walked in the direction of the line judge.  Out of range of courtside microphones but plain as day to anyone with primitive lip-reading skills, she offered to place a tennis ball in the windpipe of the judge, and she punctuated her message with at least one f-bomb.  As she returned to the service line, the line judge made her way to the match umpire, in the chair, and reported Williams’ words.  The umpire summoned the tournament referee.  Williams was assessed a point penalty.  Because Clijsters held match point, the result was to award Clijsters the match.  As I type, Clijsters is playing an entertaining final against the Dane Caroline Wozniacki.

That Serena Williams was disciplined for verbal abuse of an official seems uncontroversial.  (She had been warned once previously in the match for “equipment abuse,” that is, she had slammed her racquet in frustration after losing the first set.  Apparently this earlier violation did not play a role in the point penalty at the end of the match.)  Under the Code of Conduct that governs professional tennis, a finding of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” leads to a point penalty.  In this case, the point penalty happened to be assessed on match point.  For the full, detailed recitation of the rules of tennis in the US, see this impressive document.

More interesting has been the response of the tennis establishment, which (as I have listened today, especially to the announcers Enberg, Carillo, and Shriver) has united in its condemnation of Williams’ conduct.  The establishment is less united in support of a harsher view, but that harsher view has a lot of supporters.  It is this:  Williams apparently will be fined $10,500; that total is deemed inadequate.  She will be permitted to play her doubles final with her sister, Venus Williams.  That is deemed inappropriate. 

In fact, the establishment apparently would go much farther.  Even in the absence of a prior warning, and even if the match had not teetered on match point, the commentators endorse the view that verbal abuse should result in an immediate and automatic disqualification.  They don’t draw the analogy, but a comparable result would and ordinarily should follow from a player’s direct verbal abuse of an official in many other sports.   The establishment also expects an apology, and would like to see a suspension.  Serena Williams was direct with the media after the match last night, but she did not apologize, and to my knowledge today she has not apologized – to the line judge, to Clijsters (who seemed bewildered during the episode), or to the fans.  Nor, to my knowledge, has a suspension been issued.

In other words, is tennis easier on its players than other sports are?  Or harder?  Notice what appears to be a distinction between the tennis norms as described by the experts in the booth — immediate DQ was appropriate, and Williams should be suspended until she apologizes – and tennis rules themselves, which are quite precise and limited.  “Unsportsmanlike conduct” is a species of misconduct that warrants a point penalty for the first offense, a game penalty for the second, and a match default for the third.  A match umpire and tournament referee have the discretion to disqualify a player immediately for truly outrageous behavior (“any flagrantly unsportsmanlike act”), but even then the rules prescribe a system of appeals.  An umpire’s decision may be appealed to the referee; a referee’s decision may be appealed to the Tournament Appeals Committee.  Contrast this with the discretion of the officials and the finality usually accorded to disqualification (ejection) penalties in football/soccer, American football, baseball, ice hockey, and basketball.  Whether a particular act constitutes “unsportsmanlike conduct” (or the neutral “unsporting conduct”) is within the official’s discretion; ignoring it is an option.  An ejection, if it occurs, is usually non-appealable.

Does the Serena Williams episode expose a gap between rules and norms?  Or does tennis offer a specific case of what happens throughout sport, one necessarily complementing the other?  For all of their popularization over the last 15 to 20 years, tennis and golf remain bastions of old-fashioned norms of sporting civility.  Fans are expected to remain quiet during play, especially when players serve and shoot.  Players are expected not to act out their competitiveness via undue displays of emotion.  Tennis players who object to line calls may dispute them via the challenge system in use at the US Open and a handful of other tournaments, but otherwise are expected to remain stoic.  (McEnroe, Nastase, and some other legendary hotheads notwithstanding.)  As I understand the tour, Serena Williams has a well-deserved reputation for not complaining about missed calls during matches.  Golf, like tennis, is well-known for the detail of its rule book and for the norms that golfers are expected to adhere to in interpreting and applying the rules.

Clijsters takes the title.  Congrats to her!  But Wozniacki will be back; she charmed in three languages.

2 thoughts on “Judging, On and Off the Court”

  1. Serena is being judged harshly and unfairly for stuff that her white male conterparts and a few female have made famous without penalties as ridiculous and severe.

    Welcome to White America. The country that still practices extremely low tollerance for non-white folks committing similar faults.

    The master-slave mind set is alive and well in America, unfortunately.

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