There was a brief story in this morning’s New York Times about Serena Williams complaining following her first round match at The Australian Open about the $92,000 fine she received after last year’s U.S. Open for screaming at and physically threatening a lineswoman during her semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters.
If you want to know why so few people in this country care about tennis anymore this is EXACTLY the reason why.
Think about it: In any other sport if an athlete threatened an umpire, a referee or any official the only question would be how long they would be suspended for not IF they would be suspended. The Grand Slam Committee, which administers tennis’s four major championships took months to even make a decision about how to punish Williams and when it finally did she was, for all intents and purposes, let off the hook.
The ONLY way to get the attention of a multi-millionaire athlete is to take away the one thing that matters from them: the ability to compete. Tiger Woods had been fined more than any golfer in PGA Tour history for his profanity, for his club-throwing, for the behavior of his caddy. Not only have the fines not been a deterrent on any level Woods has actually defended his caddy for throwing people’s cameras and screaming his own profanities at people he thinks aren’t behaving properly in the presence of King Eldrick 1.
To fine Serena Williams $92,000 wasn’t just a wrist slap it was a light wrist slap.
Just to review what occurred: A lineswoman called a foot fault on Williams when she was serving to stay in the match in the second set. It was, without question, a critical call and the kind of call rarely made at such a moment. I have yet to see a replay that shows one way or the other whether the foot fault was so blatant that it shouldn’t have been called.
Regardless, Williams went completely ballistic, screaming at the lineswoman while walking towards her menacingly holding a ball in her hand and threatening to shove it down her throat. For this she received (properly) a warning that involved a point penalty. Since the foot fault put her at match point that was it—match over.
It was a terrible way for a great match to end. No one seems to know if it was a good call, a bad call a borderline call. Doesn’t matter. There was no excuse for Williams doing what she did. To make it worse she was, for all intents and purposes, un-apologetic for two days. She issued a non-apology/apology on Sunday that was so un-gracious and insincere (nice work by her agents there, huh?) that she had to issue another apology on Monday for the apology.
The ONLY way to punish her was a suspension. But it wasn’t going to happen. She’s the best female tennis player in the world and she and her sister Venus are still the two top draws in the women’s game—especially on television. Williams and her arrogant agents knew this, they knew she wasn’t getting suspended under any circumstances because the people who run the four Slams would go crazy if she was suspended for any one of them and the TV people would go crazier.
So she was fined what amounts to a token amount of money for someone in her tax bracket and given one of those stern, “don’t do it again,” warnings. As in, “if you do this again we’re REALLY going to get mad.”
Then, having been let off the hook, Williams turns around and whines she was fined too much money. She even said she thought the fine might have been as high as it was because she’s a woman. PLEASE, I’m begging you, SHUT UP. If The Grand Slam Committee had any backbone at all, the would say, ‘okay, that’s it, we let you off without a suspension contingent on good behavior—this isn’t good behavior, you’re out of The French Open.’
That, of course, will happen the same day that I’m inducted into The Duke Sports Hall of Fame. (For those of you who don’t know my relationship with Duke that would be on the Twelfth of Never).
This is why tennis has become a niche sport with TV ratings slightly higher than hockey—or maybe not quite as high during non-Grand Slam events. There are no rules for the stars. For years appearance fees were supposed to be against the rules and the rules were never enforced. When Marshall Happer was chairman of the now defunct Men’s Tennis Council he tried ONCE to enforce the rule on Guillermo Vilas and basically got himself fired for his trouble. Now, the rules are such that most tournaments are allowed to pay appearance fees that basically make tennis into a never-ending exhibition season except during the four majors.
The players are so spoiled by promoters and so coddled by their agents that it is almost impossible to like them. Roger Federer is a good guy but when his business buddy Woods showed up at the U.S. Open final a couple years ago for what was, in truth, a Nike photo-op, he disappeared into a private room with Woods for 45 minutes after the final and no one had the nerve to go in and say, “Roger, you just won the U.S. Open how about coming in and spending 10 minutes with the media.” (which by RULE every player is supposed to do when requested).
Nope, can’t do that, can’t ask one of the stars to simply follow the rules.
Every time I bring this up the tennis people go crazy. The people running the game, including my friend Bill Babcock who runs the Grand Slam Committee, start telling me how popular the game is in Europe or in Australia. Guess what Bill that makes tennis into soccer—a niche sport in the country that matters most in sports. That may sound chauvinistic but it’s true. And please don’t cite U.S. Open attendance figures to me either. The USTA is practically flagging people down on The Grand Central Parkway (okay, I’ve use that line before) to get them to buy tickets prior to the final weekend. Once upon a time you couldn’t beg, borrow or steal an Open ticket.
Heck, The Davis Cup, which is often the most dramatic event in tennis, isn’t even on live TV (The Tennis Channel doesn’t count folks, it is watched by the same 14 people every day) anymore.
Tennis at its best is still great to watch. Federer-Roddick at Wimbledon was absolutely one of the sports highlights of the year. But the people running the game—or, more accurately not running it—have turned it into a niche sport where the inmates (the players) have been running the asylum for years.
Which is truly a shame.
I know I take shots at ESPN a lot (usually with good reason) but seriously how much hubris does it take to do something like this hokey, ‘announcer swap,’ they’re doing tonight? I mean seriously WHO CARES?
ESPN honestly believes who their announcers are a bigger deal than the games being played. What difference does it make if Dick Vitale is screaming about the NBA or the NCAA—or for that matter women’s basketball which he was doing the other night. So Mike Breen is calling a college game and Dan Shulman—who calls NBA games a lot anyway, right?—is calling an NBA game.
Please. Next thing you know they’ll have college coaches begging their fans to show up for their let’s-hype-ourselves every Saturday show. Oh wait, they’re already doing that.