Serena Williams must keep her legacy in mind

No rant or rave or outburst laced with vitriolic fury will ever change the cold, hard facts of Serena Williams’ glittering tennis career.

A Grand Slam haul of 13 singles titles. Thirty-nine tournament wins. Nearly $35 million in prize money. The 2002-03 “Serena Slam” of four consecutive majors across two seasons.

Yet the next time the red mist starts to descend, just as it did for Williams during her U.S. Open final defeat to Samantha Stosur on Sunday, she would be well served to pause and consider the damage she might be doing to her legacy.

Serena Williams fined $2,000 by the U.S. Open on Monday for berating the chair umpire during the final.

Williams is one of the all-time greats, no question about it, and in purely tennis terms nothing can ever change her rightful place among the game’s most elite company.

A couple of aberrations, albeit mental meltdowns that were truly incendiary in nature, would not necessarily impact the fondness with which she will be regarded after she hangs up that flashing racket.

Except that Williams’ timing, not to put too fine a point on it, is truly atrocious.

Just like her explosion in 2009, when she threatened a female line judge during her semifinal defeat to Kim Clijsters, it was in that most public of tennis forums, Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, and on a marquee night of the U.S. Open. The American public pays scant attention to tennis outside the majors, and while whatever takes place in minor events impacts rankings and prize money totals, all that largely passes under the radar.

[ Flashback: Serena Williams threatens a line judge at ’09 U.S. Open]

Rightly or wrongly, tennis players’ perceptions in the wider community are forged, nowadays at least, during a few brief windows of visibility.

Tennis doesn’t have as many characters as it used to, which brings incidents like this into sharper focus. No longer is John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors blowing up on a weekly basis.

When compared to the men’s game, filled with stand-up characters such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and where the greatest show of dissent is Novak Djokovic’s cheeky impressions of his peers, Serena’s spikiness doesn’t stack up well.

Forget about any double standard on the grounds of gender. If a male player behaved in a similar fashion, he would be levied with a stringent punishment and, most likely earn a rebuke from his fellow professionals. Perhaps society expects a different level of decorum from a woman, but that is rarely the case in modern tennis. The best male players happen to be generally a level-headed bunch.

World No. 4 Andy Murray might be renowned for his fierce outbursts, but those are almost always directed at himself or his support crew rather than the officials.

Williams’ latest incident was by no means as serious as the one that preceded it two years ago. Even so, her verbal attack on umpire Eva Asderaki was utterly uncalled for and way over the top. Williams reacted furiously to being told she had lost a point for yelling “come on” before a rally against Stosur had finished, even though she appeared to have struck a winner.

The rule in question is an odd and ambiguous one, especially given the amount of noise that comes from players in the form of grunting. Strictly speaking though, it was the correct call, and for Williams to berate Asderaki the way she did was wildly inappropriate.

“You’re totally out of control,” Williams yelled. “You’re a hater and you’re just unattractive inside.”

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: Mary Carillo thinks Serena acted like an ‘ass clown’]

She added: “I truly despise you. If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way because you’re out of control, you’re out of control.”

After her 2009 outburst, Williams was placed on probation. This time, she could have been penalized $175,000 and banned from next year’s U.S. Open. That would have been excessive, but the eventual fine of $2,000 was some way short of a reasonable punishment.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole saga was that Williams either failed or refused to offer any meaningful act of contrition. An apology would have been a thoroughly good idea but there was none, not even a hint of it.

[Related: See photos of Serena Williams]

Sports stars can easily get caught in the heat of the moment and Williams’ fiery spirit is part of what has made her such a spectacular champion.

Yet it is time for her to remind us all what makes her so special, rather than providing highlight reel fodder for all the wrong reasons.

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Martin Rogers is a staff writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Sep 13, 2011