Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Sportsmanship

Posted By on Sun, Sep 13, 2009 at 9:50 AM

Serena Williams says other tennis players have said worse things and behaved worse than she did Saturday night at the U.S. Open. She's right, and Memphis tennis fans have seen it.

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have raged against fans, umpires, linesmen, and themselves in matches at the Racquet Club of Memphis. Their antics were endured in silence by the linesmen and lineswomen, but they were no less boorish than William's f-bomb-laced tirade of the lineswoman who called a ridiculous foot fault on her at the end of her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters.

One of the biggest changes in tennis is how much better the sportsmanship is since the Connonrs-McEnroe era.

Just a few years ago in a meaningless match in a seniors event at the Racquet Club, McEnroe lost it. He screamed at the umpire and then bent over and smashed a ball. It bounced back into his face, stopping play for a few minutes before the match could continue.

Connors' specialty was more contemptible. He made a calculated show of upstaging linesmen and women for the entertainment of the crowd while his opponents seethed. A woman who called lines several years told me Connors' favorite line was a whispered "can you say 'you suck?'"

Both Connors and McEnroe turned their bad-reputations to their commercial advantage — Connors as the gamer who left everything on the court, and McEnroe as a pitchman using his signature line "are you serious?"

Not everyone was amused. Memphian Derrick Barton, who played at Wimbleton in the 1940s for England and later taught tennis at the University Club, thought that Connors, McEnroe, and Ilie Nastase threatened to ruin the sport he loved with their antics.

One way or another, players got the message. The men and women pros who come to Memphis are invariably professional and generally confine their outbursts to occasional shouts and glares. In college tennis, coaches and umpires have taken control by reining in players and even learning curse words in foreign languages so they can impose penalties fairly.

The foot fault called against Williams was a bad call. Replays showed that, if anything, her foot barely touched the line. It was like calling palming on Michael Jordan in the closing seconds of a close game or a penalty in overtime of the seventh game of hockey's Stanley Cup. You let the players decide the outcome at that point unless the violation is flagrant.

Williams "manned up" ("womaned up"?) at the post-match press conference, sort of. Broadcaster Mary Jo Fernandez handled the post-match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, McEnroe, who is also an announcer at the Open, was silent, although he will probably have plenty to say today during the men's matches. He was a phenomenal player and a great television analyst, but this one will call more for self analysis.

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