This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Serena Williams' outburst of angry obscenities has been cause for comment and debate all week, but I feel one major point has been missing from the discussion. Yes, on one hand, we can perhaps all understand that an athlete in a heated moment on the world stage could lose control, if suddenly confronted with an injustice. In the final dramatic moments of her semi-final match at the US Open, on the precipice of being upset and not having the chance to win another Grand Slam title for her glorious career, a petty call of a foot-fault, an unheard-of call at such a key point in such an important match, threw Serena into a rage that seemed to render her temporarily insane. Okay. The empathy of our humanness can forgive an athlete for careening emotionally out of control in the face of an undeserved, unfair call against her. Yet sports have for good reason instituted tight rules that disallow abuse of officials and fans, no matter how incompetent or unjust the call, no matter how rude or mean-spirited the heckling. We can go all the way back to Ty Cobb in 1912 and his case of jumping into the stands to physically fight a heckler who it turned out had no hands. Cobb continued the assault, all the while yelling, "I don't care if he got no feet!" Cobb was suspended, as has happened to many athletes for similar egregious outbursts.
And there is a long line of folks currently pushing for Serena Williams' suspension. Yes, she got a bad call. Yes, it came outrageously at a late moment in a premiere event. But you just can't say to an official, "I could shove this f'ing ball down your f'ing throat". You just can't physically threaten a referee. I too am on the side of believing Serena should be suspended from the game for some period of time.
But the point missing here is the nature of the outburst. I'm sure you have all known that moment when you are pushed to a breaking point. Then when you finally calm down and gain some perspective on the incident, you find the words that came from deep within were quite telling. The particular words that comprised the Serena tirade opened a window into her psyche. When McEnroe exploded all those times, we came to know the John McEnroe who simply could not tolerate fools. The public persona broke down and we had immediate insight into a privileged brat with a superiority complex and zero value for paying respect to authorities. I have no doubt that we peeped into the interior world of Serena Williams the other day. Another player, equally enraged, might have screamed, "You're crazy! How can you make that call!" But not many would come up with, "I could stuff this f'ing ball down your f'ing throat!"
As telling as the actual words of the tirade was the two-day-long evolution of the Serena apology. It started with her own instincts at the press conference following the match. Serena honestly felt that all would be forgiven because she told us hers in the passion of a champion. Over the next two days, it was evident that her entourage coached her into actually apologizing directly to the lineswoman. But when she flippantly said she wished she could find the woman because she'd give her "a big old hug", the disconnect was palpable. She still gave no credence to the hostility, nor the bullying fear, she had thrust upon this official, a person whom I would bet has no desire whatsoever at this point to become the recipient of a Serena Williams hug.
I've always said that we fans have an uncanny talent for sensing the real spirit that lurks beneath the surface of our public figures' daily image-making.
I'm afraid we just got a glimpse of one--not often on display yet nevertheless very real side--of Serena Williams.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: Serena Williams talks to US Open head referee Brian Earley after being penalized in her match against Kim Clijsters from Belgium during their Women's Semi-Final US Open match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center September 12, 2009 in New York. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images