Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Updated: January 13, 9:10 PM ET
Will New York meltdown weigh on Serena?
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Serena Williams should be pumped up, or more so than usual, when the Australian Open starts Monday, or Sunday, depending on where you live. Yes, tennis junkies in the U.S. and Europe are in for some crazy hours until the end of January. Let's hope the excitement comes close to matching the Packers-Cardinals thriller last weekend, making the long nights worthwhile.
Williams, of course, was involved in the single biggest incident at the U.S. Open, menacingly threatening a slender female line judge who called her for a foot fault, leading to a double fault, at a critical juncture of her semifinal against comeback queen and former No. 1 Kim Clijsters. It set up a match point, and Williams was then penalized for her outburst, handing a stunned Clijsters the match.
There must have been something in the Flushing Meadows air that week, besides the smell of burgers and hot dogs, given Roger Federer's foul-mouthed tirade aimed in the direction of baby-faced chair ump Jake Garner in the men's final.
Williams avoided a suspension but got hit with a record $82,500 fine in November. More bad behavior from Williams, and the double-digit Grand Slam champ could be barred from the U.S. Open in the future.
The Williams camp released one of those tame, pre-prepared statements in the wake of the sanction, with the 28-year-old saying she wanted to put the incident behind her. No sign of anger.
Nearly two weeks later, though, Williams vented on a Web site, suggesting the fine was excessive and two former bad boys on the men's tour, John McEnroe and Jeff Tarango, got away lightly with previous indiscretions.
Williams landed in Australia this week, taking part in Sydney's Medibank International, and again insisted the case was closed.
Nah. She'll be thinking about it and using what she feels is harsh treatment as a little extra motivation.
"I think most athletes who ever feel wronged, for the best ones their aptitude is to come back faster, stronger, better," said Eurosport analyst David Felgate. "I'd be surprised if [the fine] had any negative effect on her."
Felgate, a soft-spoken and polite chap, used to coach Tim Henman, Nicole Vaidisova and Xavier Malisse, all of whom had a bit of a temper. Henman, we shouldn't forget, got disqualified from Wimbledon in 1995 when he fired a ball that (accidentally) struck a ball girl in the head during a doubles match. Ironically, Tarango was one of his opponents.
Williams got robbed by the chair ump in the U.S. Open quarterfinals six years ago and bounced back emphatically, winning the ensuing Australian Open. Williams saved three match points against Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and rallied against Lindsay Davenport in the final.
The entire Williams family feels aggrieved over what happened in Indian Wells, Calif., in 2001. Serena's dad, Richard, says he and Venus were racially abused in the stands.
Williams hasn't played the prestigious mixed event since, and as if to say, "Here's what you're missing," she has won the next tournament on the calendar, Miami, the unofficial fifth Slam, five times. Playing near home doesn't hurt, mind you.
Williams might need that little extra push, since defending U.S. Open champ Clijsters and fellow Belgian Justine Henin, comeback queen No. 2, are in good form. They contested what'll go down as one of the matches of 2010 in the final of the Brisbane International, a classic won by Clijsters in a third-set tiebreaker.
Sharapova looked sharp in an exhibition in Hong Kong last week and is one of the few women's players who come close to matching Williams in mental toughness. In short, Williams will have to do more than just get by the likes of Russians Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina, as she did en route to last year's Australian Open title. Logic dictates Dementieva won't do as well as last year on the circuit, and ditto for Safina.
Williams impressed in her first match of 2010, downing a familiar foe, tricky Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, 6-1, 6-2 in the scorching Sydney heat.
"I feel like I have no pressure on myself," Williams told reporters in Sydney. "If I play the best I can play, I've always said I'm very difficult to beat."
Felgate wasn't about to disagree as he predicted a women's winner.
"If I had to, I'd pick Serena because at her very, very best, she is the best," he said.