Serena Williams should have been the feel-good story of the U.S. Open, returning to tennis after hardly playing at all, recovering from a pulmonary embolism that could have killed her. And the tournament was playing out just right, as Williams knocked off six consecutive opponents before losing against Australia's Samantha Stosur in the finals Sunday.
That's where, unfortunately, Williams shifted the focus from her play to her antics, becoming a trending topic for an incident with the chair umpire.
Williams displayed poor sportsmanship, disrespectful behavior and childlike immaturity. Or, in other words, conduct that's all too familiar for some tennis players in high-stakes matches. But judging by some of the reaction — one headline compared Williams' act to homicide — you would think she took her racket and repeatedly smacked it upside the umpire's head.
The scene was nowhere close to Williams' eruption at the Open in 2009, when, in an obscenity-laced outburst, she walked toward a lineswoman and shouted, "If I could, I'd take this [bleep] ball and shove it down your [bleep] throat!"
Now, that was a meltdown, totally indefensible. And she paid for it, with a record $82,500 fine and two years of probation.
Recollections of that incident, at the same tournament and same venue, helped fuel the harsh criticism after Sunday's episode. But just like then, some of the backlash seemed racially coded, with words like "menacing" and "threatening," as if Williams was on the verge of actually becoming violent.
That's a burden that Williams, as well as her sister, Venus, have carried ever since they took tennis by storm and became all-time great players. Serena Williams is big, strong and well-muscled, and when that combination is wrapped in black, it's viewed by some as more volatile and intimidating.
Williams, who tweeted an apology Wednesday, is an emotional athlete and supercompetitive. The incident, for which she was fined $2,000, has been way overblown, but she should do a better job of controlling herself in the future.
Besides being a role model to millions of young girls, she has her legacy and endorsements to consider.
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