The excitement at last night's rain delayed US Open Women's Semifinal match between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters provided tennis fans a rare glimpse into the dynamics of abuse. My family says I can find the abuse angle in just about anything, and admittedly I seem to have a good nose for it, but even I can't remember such an example in professional sports. At least not since the good ole days of Johnny Mac. But in those days, my sense of smell wasn't what it is today. Okay, so I'm passionate about the subject. Don't get me started. Now back to the match.
Serena was called for a foot fault on a second serve. The automatic double fault led to match point against her. The match was still undecided at that point, despite Serena being down a set and a match point, as she is well known for her uncanny ability to come back from the depths of adversity to win. But her temper got in the way of her plan, as she stated later in her press conference, to hit "a couple of aces" to win the game, and "keep going". Problem is that, according to Wikipedia, rage "denotes aggression where there is anger present...that is characterized by impulsive thinking and a lack of planning".
We all know that Serena is a powerful physical presence on the court. On her way to serve the next point, Serena turned every ounce of that power towards the small woman seated in the chair at the baseline whose job it is to call a fault when she sees a toe cross over the service line. She started by gesturing towards the woman with a tennis ball in her hand, colorfully describing how she would like to shove it down her throat. Then she leaned in and gestured with her outstretched racket, waiving it up and down from the elbow. After returning to the baseline to serve, she made another pass at the official, gesturing once again and moving towards her. It is not often that so many people, the world really, witness such an act of aggression. Caught on videotape with a hot mike, there can be no doubt about what happened. Some believe there is still significant doubt about whether there really was a foot fault, but that determination is entrusted to the official, and even Serena later said that she probably did foot fault and did not doubt that it was a call made in the official's best judgment.
So the small woman scurried to the chair umpire stand when summoned to disclose what was said to her. Bravely, right there in front of everyone. The instant power that is generated when someone "tells" never ceases to amaze me. The New York crowd stuck up for the tiny teller and the abuser loser left the court in shame, boos following her into the tunnel.
What happened next was, according to CBS tennis analyst Mary Carillo, an Academy Award winning performance by Ms. Williams. George Vecsey of the New York Times described how she spoke in her "weirdly disassociated voice, the one she uses to hold people off," saying that she didn't know why the woman would have felt threatened. Basically dismissing the event, Serena said she wanted to move on. Usually it is the abuse victim who disassociates which, according to Wikipedia, is a "normal response to trauma and allows the mind to distance itself from experiences that are too much for the psyche to process at that time". Apparently it was just too much for Serena to process that she had unleashed a profane, abusive tirade on the court against an official that she admitted was just doing her job, costing her a possible spot in the US Open final. We have no way of knowing how the victim processed the experience because she didn't give a press conference.
So abuse occurs, the victim tells, the victim gets the support she deserves, the abuser is punished, and we all feel good that we don't tolerate such things. I guess you could say we have Serena Williams to thank for demonstrating the way things are supposed to work, but rarely do. If only we could magically, as a society, witness each and every case of abuse that occurs on a daily basis so that we could encourage the victims to tell, protect them when they do, punish the abuser, and feel good about our role as caretakers of the powerless. Thanks, Serena, for at least showing us what it looks like. If only we could magically know how very often it doesn't work this way. Then maybe we could do something about it.