By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y., Sept. 12 -- The most fiercely contested and well-played women's match at the U.S. Open ended in controversy Saturday night, as Serena Williams lashed out at a linesperson and was assessed a point penalty that handed the victory to her opponent, Kim Clijsters.
Clijsters advanced to Sunday's final with the 6-4, 7-5 victory. But the Belgian, who only returned to tennis last month after retiring in 2007, took little joy in the achievement, as baffled by the frenetic chain of events that ended the match as the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium and the CBS commentators in the booth.
Clijsters had outplayed the three-time defending U.S. Open champion for most of the 1-hour 31-minute match and was two points from victory, with Williams serving at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set.
As Williams uncorked a second serve (having faulted on her first serve), a linesperson cited her for a foot fault, meaning one of her feet was over the service line. The penalty is rarely called and almost unheard of at such a critical juncture, two points from match point, with a place in the final of a Grand Slam event at stake.
Almost immediately, four-time U.S. Open champion John McEnroe questioned the call on air, saying he didn't see anything that warranted it, which resulted in the loss of a point. That made the score 15-40, representing match point for Clijsters.
But instead of serving, Williams, who had battled fiercely to force a third set, stepped toward the linesperson, shook the ball at her repeatedly and, according to several people within earshot, shouted: "You better be [expletive] right! You don't [expletive] know me!" Then she told the woman she was lucky she didn't shove the ball down her throat.
Louise Engzell, the chair umpire, summoned the linesperson and asked what Williams had said. With the crowd booing and play halted amid the confusion, tournament referee Brian Earley came onto the court.
The upshot was this: Based on the linesperson's account, Williams was assessed a point penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct" because it was her second infraction of the match, having drawn a code violation for smashing her racket after losing the first set. The point penalty handed the victory to Clijsters.
In her post-match news conference, Williams denied threatening the official.
"I've never been in a fight in my whole life, so I don't know why she would have felt threatened," Williams said, unapologetic and unremorseful.
She also declined to repeat what she told the lineswoman, saying alternately that she had forgotten and that she had already "let it go."
"I don't think that's necessary for me to speak about that," Williams said. "I'm trying to better - to, you know, to get - to move on."
The controversy soured what should have been a feel-good story, at least for Clijsters, 26, whose rapid ascent to form 18 months after giving birth to her daughter and one month after return to tennis has been one of the more compelling storylines of the U.S. Open.
When Clijsters decided to end her retirement, she chose to start her comeback late in the 2009 season, hoping that two or three months of matches would hone her skills enough so she could contend for titles in 2010.
By reaching the final of the U.S. Open just one month later, Clijsters proved herself perhaps the worst prognosticator in sports history -- grossly underestimating how quickly she could reach world-class form.
In her march to Sunday's final, Clijsters beat both Serena and Venus Williams, the world's second- and third-ranked players, in a six-day span. She is only the third player to beat both sisters in a Grand Slam event, joining Martina Hingis (2001 Australian Open) and Justine Henin (2007 U.S. Open), both now retired.
However overshadowed, Clijsters's victory Saturday should represent a de facto coronation for Sunday. Having toppled both Williams sisters, she should have little trouble against 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki, who advanced to the final with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over unseeded Yanina Wickmayer that was reduced to an asterisk by Williams's virulent outburst and the fabulous shot-making that marked the Williams-Clijsters match.
The unseeded Clijsters, who hasn't played enough matches to warrant a ranking, stormed to the brink of victory Saturday by serving more precisely, defending more effectively and wearing down the sport's most imposing athlete by yanking her from one corner of the court to the other with penetrating groundstrokes.
Clijsters attacked Williams's weak second serve. And she committed just 18 unforced errors to Williams's 31, forcing Williams to play more high-risk tennis to beat her.
The match was delayed more than an hour by rain, finally starting at 9:21 p.m.
Clijsters broke Williams's serve, which is regarded as the best in women's tennis, in the fourth game. In the first 45 minutes, Williams had her serve broken as many times (three) as she had in her five previous matches.
Serving down 3-4 in the set and trailing 30-40 in the game, Williams leapt in the air to crush an overhead mid-flight and roared with such aggression that her mother, Oracene Price, covered her face with her hands.
It was a gutsy shot and a critical one, with Williams fending off three break points to knot the score at four games apiece.
Williams's fight, particularly on those rare occasions when she trails in an important match, has been the hallmark of a brilliant career. And she routinely intimidates opponents with her ferocity, whether reflected in the power of her strokes or the intensity of her stare-downs.
Earlier in the tournament she appeared at a press conference wearing a T-shirt that read, "Can't Spell Dynasty Without Nasty."
But on this night, that ferocity spelled her defeat.
Asked if she would like to have done anything different on the court, Williams said: "I think I would have come to the net a little bit more. I think I didn't play aggressive enough tennis."