16 September 2011
“No athlete’s ever at 100 percent. I’ll leave it at that.” Though Serena Williams was talking about her feet (bunions, blisters, bursitis) she could easily have been talking about her need to be on the International Tennis Federation’s probation list. Her 2009 screaming scene and the 2011 sequel - serenading us during the US Open final - have triggered some thoughts about cheating, knowing the rules and where is an athlete’s edge – or foot.
How close to the edge was Serena treading? In 2009 it was over the baseline on a serve. What did she learn about the game or herself from that? On the surface, it seems like about two years and ten professional matches of relative calm. But we missed what she learned during her off-court life of injury and illness. Earlier there was the South Carolina confederate flag fiasco and the Indian Wells Waterloo. How close to the edge was Eva Asderaki, the chair umpire? Was Serena’s rule infraction deliberate, unintentional or unconscious? Were Eva and Serena conscious?
When we walk on to the court to play a match, most of us are going with the intent to win. At least that’s what people say – and that’s another story to visit some day. But that conscious and sub-conscious urge to win is partially guided by the rules of the game. Some are clear and one-note, some recommend leeway, and others have a step process. All are based on an honor system: When in doubt – give the point to your opponent. This honor code is intact whether there is a referee of not.
Either way, we need to know the rules. John McEnroe has said many times, “If you don’t know the rules of the game, you can’t complain.” Sounds a little like Johnny Cochran, but I took JMac’s words to heart as I won and wasn’t cheated out of a pleasant share of points just by knowing how to handle the rule issues. I knew what to fight for and what to concede. I knew the boundary.
Did Serena try to get away with something? Did she think she saw the ball bounce twice? In 2009 did she think a foot fault was OK? Was she trying to cheat a point? Did she watch the infraction and her reaction on YouTube?
My questions, as a player and coach: How far do we go for a win? What do we teach? My line: I play to win and I will do anything to win short of cheating.
This means I need to know the ITF Rules and USTA Handbook of Rules; I need to remain informed about rule and procedural changes (footfault, carry, tirbreaker sequence, lets; ranking system…). And I need to know about myself. How much do I want the gold? What will I do for it today? How close to the edge will I go?
What will the Grand Slam committee do? If Serena was “beside herself” – not within herself – does that relieve her of responsibility?