Victim or bully? Serena's both

Serena Williams
There are many sides to Serena Williams.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.


Oh, no, not again. Serena Williams. US Open. Official makes a correct ruling against her. She flips out.

“I promise you,’’ Williams said to the chair umpire Sunday during her loss in the women’s finals, “if you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way. Cause you’re out of control. You’re out of control.’’

Oh no, not again. Where have we seen this before? Two years ago, Williams goes into an f-bomb laced, threatening tirade against a line judge, and now this?

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Well, no. Not again. This was not the same thing.

Williams was not graceful Sunday, and that was 100 percent unacceptable. But it also was 100 percent understandable. This time, we should be a little sympathetic to her. Give Williams a little room.

I’ve never shied away from criticizing Williams for her behavior, but seeing her emotions on display this time was different. It made me think about all the things she brings with her when she steps onto the court: passion, athleticism, history, racism, injury, melodrama, and an amped-up, football-style approach.

True to the polarization she brings to any debate, people will try to oversimplify this. But Williams is always complex.

No, her behavior was not traditional tennis etiquette, but she has never approached this sport from the same direction or used the same roads that traditional tennis players have.

All these years on tour and Williams should know better. At the same time, all these years, and people still aren’t used to seeing her. She is a large, black, muscular woman who came from the tough town of Compton, Calif., not a skinny, country club girl with long blonde hair.

It’s a beautiful thing that she and her sister Venus have brought to tennis. Hasn’t everyone figured that out yet? Serena and Venus are the Great American Tennis Story.

Samantha Stosur


Samantha Stosur upsets Serena Williams to become the first Australian woman since 1980 to win a major. View the photos

Williams gets fired up like a football player does, and can out-yell an entire stadium. That passion is mandatory for football players. Yes, different sports can have different cultures and rules of behavior. But if Williams isn’t like a usual tennis player, that’s fine. It’s good.

“I don't even remember what I said,’’ she said later. “It was just so intense out there. It's the final for me, and I was just . . . I guess I'll see it on YouTube.

“I don't know. I was just in the zone. I think everyone, when they play, they kind of zone out kind of thing.’’

Williams is probably the most beloved female athlete in the country.

She’s also the most divisive. In addition to love, she faces pure hatred directed at her every day. This sport has a mostly white past, and a predominantly white, wealthy governing structure.

She brings that to the court with her, too.

Every time she steps out onto that stage in front of millions of people, she must know that she faces subtle — and not so subtle — racist thoughts in some of those people’s minds. I’ve seen a sampling of these kinds of thoughts in the comments at the end of my columns about her.

Whatever I say, whether the column is positive or negative, some people feel compelled to turn the debate into the ugliest kind of racism.

Let’s be clear: I’m not trying to give her a pass. She behaved terribly. But she is under a different kind of pressure than other tennis players. And it seemed on Sunday, that pressure just turned into pure emotion.

Go over her rant again. It wasn’t the same as the one two years ago.

No bad language. No threats.

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2011 US Open

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She sat in her chair during the changeover, looked at her towel and kept going on and on at the chair ump a few feet away.

“You’re a hater. And you’re unattractive inside,’’ Williams said.

As she tapped her heart and seemingly fought off tears, she didn’t look like the bully of two years ago. “Who could do such a thing? And I never complain. Wow. What a loser. Code violation because I express my . . . We’re in America last I checked.’’

She turned to a ball kid and asked for a bottle of water.

“Or am I going to get violated for a water? Really, don’t even look at me. I promise you, don’t look at me. Cause I’m not the one. Don’t. Look. My. Way.’’

It sounded as if her feelings were hurt.

Think about the emotion she brought to this match. She missed nearly a year with foot surgeries, and then with blood clots in her lungs. A little melodramatically, she described herself as coming off her deathbed to come back.

So I asked her Thursday if she’s able to play a match without thinking about her illness.

“I am, and I think I was able to get that confidence first before I played Stanford (in July),’’ she said. “I came to New Jersey to see my doctor, and he gave me a clean bill of health.

“Ever since then, I played without thinking that something could happen. So that’s a really good feeling.’’

Well, in the first set against Sam Stosur Sunday, Williams’ foot was hurting and she had no energy. Blood clots can sap your energy.

So add it up: She was gone for a year. She is in a major final that can make things somewhat right. Symptoms possibly from her health problems are acting up. She is trying to fire herself up like a football player.

And she is getting crushed.

“I tried to get more fired up, and kind of get more into it and kind of just get more Serena-esque and into the match,’’ she said.

She hits a forehand, yells “Come on!’’ and then is told that the point is Stosur’s. Williams had screamed while the point was still ongoing, which is a violation of the hindrance rule. She didn’t argue that. She just wanted to play the point over, not give it to Stosur.

Those aren’t the rules.

But with all those things swirling, emotion was understandable.

You can make a similar argument about her tirade two years ago, but that crossed over the line into violent.

To be clear, this is not to defend her actions, but to explain them. To ask for a little space, a little understanding.

She blew it two years ago, and never gave an honest apology. This summer, she still insisted that she was right.

So she isn’t blameless in the reaction to her now. She made a diva-move to make the day about her, and not about Stosur.

She’s wrong, but she was insisting on being right, anyway.

And in the calm, level-headed time after Williams lost 6-2 6-3 Sunday, she still wasn’t big enough to acknowledge that she hadn’t acted well, and was wrong.

The divide will only continue over this. She is a victim. She is a bully.

Maybe there is some truth to both views. Emotions are never simple.

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