Serena Williams’ 2009 foot fault freak out is one of the most notorious blowups in all of sports. If you somehow missed this massive scandal for the past eleven years, here is the rundown:
It was Serena Williams v. Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Already down a set, Williams was setting up for her second serve down 15-30, 5-6 in the set. In non-tennis terms, this means that with the loss of the next two points, Williams would miss out on a U.S. Open finals appearance. As she hit her trademark powerful serve, the line judge responsible for watching her feet called a foot fault, sparking not only a lost point but also quite the reaction from Williams.
Following the controversial call, Williams immediately began berating the lineswoman, yelling multiple expletives and storming back and forth between the lineswoman’s post and the baseline.
The outburst, which ultimately cost Williams the match, also sacrificed her pristine reputation for years to come. Even to this day — almost eleven years later — some tennis fans still have a lack of respect for Williams because of that day in 2009.
While I’m certainly not saying Serena’s outburst was acceptable, nor that repercussions at the time were unwarranted, I’m saying that her foot fault meltdown should not be the image of tennis drama, nor should it define Serena Williams for tennis fans.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Serena Williams’ race played a role in the over-hyping of the severity of this event. As a black athlete, internal biases and stereotypes have likely increased the perceived “aggression” and “threatening” behavior that Williams portrayed in her dispute with the lineswoman, as well as with the umpire and supervisors.
It would be equally ignorant to ignore the role that Williams’ gender played in the widespread, prolonged attention that this incident obtained. Tennis is a sport notorious for double standards between male and female players. Female players are disproportionately called for code violations for which their male counterparts go unquestioned.
One example of this was in the 2018 Australian Open, when female player, Alize Cornet, was given a code violation for modestly switching her shirt from backward to forwards at the back of the court between points. It sparked outrage due to the fact that male players consistently take their shirts off during changes of ends and sit bare-chested for minutes at a time.
Male players consistently argue with the umpire as well as their opponents during match play, and even the most egregious of these incidents rarely garner as much international attention as the Williams incident.
It’s also important to note the lack of physical reaction Serena Williams had during this dispute. In tennis, smashing rackets, aggressively hitting balls into the crowd, and throwing towels at ball-kids has become customary when players become agitated.
Off the top of my head, I can name at least three incidents of anger on the court that far exceed William’s outburst in terms of aggression and outrageousness. In the 2020 ATP cup, Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas hit his father with an aggressive racket swing out of frustration on a change of ends. In 2017, young Canadian player Denis Shapovolov, sent a ball flying into the face of the chair umpire of the match, forcing him into surgery. And in 1991, tennis legend Andre Agassi called the umpire a “son of a bitch,” and spit on him, though the spit was later deemed “unintentional.”
These are just three examples I could conjure up off of the top of my head that I would consider more aggressive, inappropriate, and notorious than Williams’ incident. So this begs the question: when all of this is going on, why are we still only talking about Serena Williams? Had it been a white player, would we see it as so egregious? Had it been a male player, would we see it as so aggressive?
I am asking that we be responsible fans and analyze why it is that we have fixated on this incident when more ill-intentioned and inappropriate incidents have occurred on and off the tennis court in the past eleven years since Serena’s foot fault fiasco.