Serena Williams’ Fine

15:09 Fri 11 Dec 2009. Updated: 18:59 12 Dec 2009
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Serena Williams was recently fined $82,500 by the International Tennis Federation for the actions leading to her exit from this year’s US Open. The ITF fine is in addition to the $10,500 she was fined by the USTA soon after the incident.

The fine from the ITF is the largest ever in tennis, and there’s significant controversy over the whole affair. I’ve read quite a few claims that racism and sexism are key drivers for the decision to fine her so much. I’m somewhat skeptical of those claims.

Which is not to say I can’t believe the ITF or USTA (or individuals therein) would have racist or sexist attitudes (or both). I just don’t see much evidence in the decision to support the claims that they’re treating her particularly differently than they would another high-level player.

I get the sense that many of those claiming bias aren’t that familiar with tennis—I was fairly unimpressed with the Feministing take on the fine—and are missing some of the key differences between what Serena did and the actions of other players in other incidents.

Serena herself seems to miss some of those differences, and seems to feel that the fine is unfair—not to mention implying that it’s part of an ongoing pattern of discrimination against her. While that pattern may exist, the fine itself doesn’t look like evidence of it.

She wasn’t actually disqualified. It’s important to note that she had a point awarded against her in her match against Clijsters, and that this occurred because she’d already been given a warning for racket abuse at the end of the first set. This is important because the chair umpire didn’t take the match away from Serena because of the seriousness of Serena’s outburst, but rather had little choice other than to apply the next penalty—it should be clear that Serena’s actions warranted some penalty. However, this decided the match because, having been called for foot-faulting on second serve at 30–30, serving to stay in the match, Serena was at 30–40, and awarding Clijsters the point meant awarding her the match. This is not a mere technicality. If Serena had been penalized at 15–15, she would have remained on the court.

The money is trivial. Yes, it’s a lot of money to most people. Yes, it’s a record fine. But does that amount of money actually matter to Serena Williams in any serious way? No. Would it really matter to any of the top players? No. In that sense, Serena probably was treated differently to a poorer player—the ITF was trying to fine her an amount that didn’t seem ludicrously small for a global superstar. (In this I think they failed, but they got a lot closer than the USTA—who fined her the maximum their rules allowed.)

Jeff Tarango was banned for two Grand Slams. Serena and others cite Tarango’s famous tantrum from 1995 as evidence that she’s treated more harshly, because her fine was greater than his even though his wife physically assaulted the chair umpire. Tarango’s fine of $63,000 in 1995 dollars is certainly comparable to Serena’s and is not some vastly smaller amount, and it was a lot more money to Tarango than $92,500 is to Serena. On top of that, Tarango was barred from two Grand Slam tournaments as a result of that incident, while Serena gets a probationary period.

Other incidents involve chair umpires, not line judges. Many commenters seem unaware of this distinction. Players aren’t supposed to address the line judges, and their protests are supposed to go through the chair umpire. The symbolism is fairly apparent: the authority figure on the court is the one in the high chair, and that chair grants them literal and figurative distance from angry players. The line judges have no such distance. Umpires are expected to interact with players, and to have the authority, personality, and wherewithal to do so, whereas line judges are not. Verbally going after a line judge is vastly different than doing the same with a chair umpire. For comparison, see this Marat Safin reaction to a foot fault in a similarly critical situation. Safin, who had a reputation as something of a headcase, yells in frustration and anger, is clearly irate, and stops playing—but he goes right to the chair umpire to argue. After a lengthy rant, he does make one comment to the line judge, but he correctly steers the brunt of it at the umpire.

She threatened the official. That’s entirely different from insulting them or mocking them. I don’t recall John McEnroe (cited by Serena and others as a comparison) physically threatening officials during his tantrums, nor can I remember other cases where players did this. It should be very clear that officials have to feel comfortable making whatever they think the right calls are, and that physical threats against them simply cannot be allowed.

It’s not all about Serena. She (and others) seem to miss this, but it follows from the previous point. The various governing bodies aren’t as concerned with punishing her, Serena Williams, as they are with trying to make it extremely clear to all other players that such actions towards officials cannot be tolerated.

All of this is not to bash Serena. I do think that she’s not quite getting how wrong her actions were, but at the same time, I understand how easy it is to get carried away with frustration in the heat of intense competition, and I don’t think she should be vilified for her actions.

Also, again, I don’t intend this to absolve the tennis establishment of responsibility for racism or sexism; the former may well be endemic, and the latter definitely is. But if you’re looking to criticize the sport’s insitutions for sexism, this Serena Williams incident isn’t a good place to start—why not instead start with a situation where it’s right out in the open? I still think the Wimbledon court assignment disgrace is a much larger story than Serena’s fine, and that it deserves a lot more attention.

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