In a third-round victory Saturday over Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the 10-time Grand Slam champion was part of a bizarre sequence that contributed to a first-set loss. Williams then bashed her opponent's sportsmanship in a postmatch press conference.
With the score tied 2-2, Martinez Sanchez had a break point on Williams' serve. Following a brief rally, Martinez Sanchez approached the net after a drop shot, which Williams promptly slammed back over the net, directly at Martinez Sanchez. In what appeared to be the natural reflex of seeing an object hurtling toward your face at 100 mph, Martina Sanchez raised her hands in self defense. The ball ricocheted off something (either a racket or a forearm) and bounced back on Williams' side of the court for the winner. (Here's a clip of the point in question.)
The chair umpire awarded the point to Martinez Sanchez under the assumption that the ball hit her racket, not her body. (If a ball hits the body of a player, they lose the point.) That gave the 43rd ranked player in the world a 3-2 lead in a set that she would eventually win 6-4.
Williams immediately claimed that the ball hit Martinez Sanchez in the forearm, but chair umpire Emmanuel Joseph ignored her pleas. Williams let the incident go, but not before warning Joseph that Martinez Sanchez "better not come to the net again." (After the match, Williams would add, "I am from Compton, you know.")
Television replays confirmed Serena's protest.
In a postmatch press conference, Williams was asked about the pivotal point. She said:
The rules of tennis is when the ball hits your body, then it's out of play. You lose the point automatically. So, the ball hit her body and therefore she should have lost the point instead of cheating ... I hit that ball rather hard, she knew it hit her.
This is a tough one. Something similar happened to American James Blake at the Olympics, and he was equally dramatic about it. I think the incident lies in a gray area of sportsmanship. It's the sort of thing you can get really upset about if it negatively affects you, but it could be difficult to be virtuous about if you're the beneficiary.
If, as Williams claims, Martinez Sanchez knew the ball hit her and didn't say anything, it's not honest, but it's not an egregious violation of tennis ethics either. You can see where Serena is coming from, but what did she want Martinez Sanchez to do, overrule the chair umpire?
Tennis players aren't responsible for their own calls. If the umpire blows a ruling, that's not Martinez Sanchez's problem any more than it's Kobe Bryant's fault when he goes to the free-throw line on a play in which he wasn't fouled. Surely Serena has benefited at some point in her career from a ball that was ruled out but actually bounced in. Is that cheating too?
Serena had every right to be peeved about the incident. And her next opponent has every right to hit a shot at her body the next time she comes to the net, if only to test Serena's commitment to fair play.