Commentary

Judgment passed on Serena long ago?

Updated: November 30, 2009, 4:41 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

For once, Serena Williams will have to write a hefty check to tennis instead of the other way around, and that act is likely to please exactly no one. The world will be divided between those who think the $82,500 levied by international tennis officials for Williams' uber-temper tantrum at the U.S. Open is too little and those who will insist it's unjust.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
AP Photo/Darron CummingsSerena Williams is $82,500 lighter in the wallet, but some will surely question whether the fine was punishment enough.

Yet could anyone have been surprised that the Grand Slam committee, under the auspices of the International Tennis Federation, opted not to suspend Williams from a Grand Slam event because of her abusive tirade toward a line judge in the U.S. Open semifinal? The predictable outcome was telegraphed by ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti a few weeks ago.

Give Ricci Bitti credit -- he didn't skulk around the rhinoceros in the room. "I don't think [suspending Williams] would make much sense because it would penalize the people handing out the punishment," Ricci Bitti said at a news conference during the U.S.-Italy Fed Cup final.

"For the Grand Slam committee to exclude her from a Grand Slam doesn't seem likely," said Ricci Bitti, a nonvoting member of the committee, which comprises representatives of the four Slam events. That body made its final decision to fine Williams and put her on probation for two years -- a novel punishment that, if she violates its terms by committing a "major offense," would double the fine and result in suspension from the next U.S. Open. The sanctions were based on a recommendation by committee administrator Bill Babcock, an ITF executive director, who weighed further input from the parties involved.

Ricci Bitti's comments could be translated as follows: Why should the next Slam on the docket, the Australian Open, swallow the pill the U.S. Open couldn't, or wouldn't? Williams is the defending champion of that tournament and the top-ranked player in women's tennis. It's impossible to quantify how many tickets she does or doesn't sell or how she individually moves the television ratings needle. But it's indisputable that her absence would have siphoned drama out of the women's draw and attached a big, ugly asterisk to the winner's name. (Surely, organizers are salivating over the possibility of Williams meeting her old nemesis Justine Henin or matching up again with U.S. Open winner Kim Clijsters, aka the innocent bystander.)

The financial penalty is heavy by tennis standards -- the largest ever in the Grand Slam context -- but is equivalent to just 1.4 percent of Williams' record prize money this season. No fine, regardless of the amount, would have pacified those who wanted Williams hit where it would really hurt by keeping her from playing one of the events she still lives to win. That wasn't going to happen in this self-policed system.

And on the flip side, a fine of any amount (on top of the $10,500 assessed by the U.S. Open on the spot) is sure to reignite the wrath of those who believe Williams has been judged by a different standard because she is a woman or because she is black, or both.

(As an aside, aren't we all wondering how the Mystery Line Judge is ever going to work a match again? The potential distraction seems enormous.)

Sorry, but from this laptop keyboard, it's hard to work up a lather about the Williams sentencing at this point. Perhaps it's the elapsed time of two-and-a-half months, which, in this world of instantaneous opinion, seems a truly excessive period to weigh evidence, given that millions of people saw and heard the incident live.

Perhaps it's the vehemence of the screeds from Williams' detractors and her partisans that have been arriving in my e-mail inbox since Sept. 12 that give me pause. No figure in tennis is as polarizing as Williams, and thermostats have run very hot on both sides. What's frustrating is that most people made up their minds about Williams one way or the other years ago. Few tried to judge the U.S. Open incident on its own.

If this is the way tennis wants to govern itself, and the people who run the sport are satisfied with the standards they set, that's their business -- literally. But they must know that a modern precedent has been set with regard to on-court confrontations between players and officials at the four crown jewels of the sport. The Grand Slam committee and the ITF will be handcuffed to that precedent. Apparently, players will not risk suspension unless they physically assault a line judge or umpire, as opposed to threatening to "stuff a f---ing ball" down the throat of a line judge. If tennis tries to sanction a less prominent player more harshly, the organization will be opening itself up to charges of hypocrisy and to reversal on appeal.

Even Williams' most ardent critics should recognize that her outburst was an exception to her usual on-court behavior, not a frequent modus operandi, as it was for John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. No matter. Williams' diatribe will be replayed in video montages of her career as long as she competes and probably long after. People will argue forever about the validity of the foot fault that triggered her meltdown and the validity of the apologies that followed.

Maybe in 20 or 30 years, when memories have mellowed, Williams will star in a commercial campaign that plays off the whole thing, as McEnroe has. In the meantime, it's money under the bridge. Let's move on to the offseason. We could all use a break.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.