Serena's breakdown leads to questions

NEW YORK -- With the possible exception of Andre Agassi's evolution from brat to elder statesman, Serena Williams' image has been through more public permutations than that of any other tennis player in our collective vision.

Dynamic in every sense of the word, Williams has simultaneously inspired devotion and provoked dislike among fans over the last decade-plus. Yet starting with her renaissance in the 2007 season, she seemed to have reached a certain equilibrium. Williams is widely acknowledged as a winner in an era of parity, a fierce competitor in a period when mettle under pressure is scarce in the women's game, and an athlete whose unconventional career path now seems to add up to precious longevity.

It was hard to imagine where that journey might lead next -- but very few would have predicted that she would snap the way she did Saturday night, hurling invective and gesturing aggressively toward the line judge who called a foot fault against her at a critical moment in her U.S. Open semifinal match with Kim Clijsters. The incident was the most extreme confrontation in a women's match that anyone in the sport could recall, and some are wondering whether it will have a lasting impact on Williams' image and her legacy.

"Only time will tell, but she's going to be answering questions about this incident for a long time," said Martina Navratilova, who called the match for Tennis Channel. "It was what, 10 seconds of a tirade, and now she's going to be spending how much time dealing with that fallout?"

Williams released a statement through a public relations agency Sunday that read, in part: "Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don't agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me, and as a result handled the situation poorly."

But Navratilova said Williams missed an opportunity to rehabilitate herself right after the match. "I thought she had a chance to come clean in the press conference, and she didn't," Navratilova said. "Obviously, what she did was not something you want to teach your kids to be doing. She's lucky that she wasn't defaulted out of the doubles [final, with sister Venus]."

Tournament officials announced Sunday that Williams would be fined $10,500 and added that more sanctions could follow pending an investigation. Navratilova said that smacked of foot-dragging, and added that the longer Williams waits to apologize publicly, and the longer officials take to resolve the situation, the greater the potential damage to her and the sport.

The irony to those who have watched Williams week in and week out all these years is that she is known for near-impeccable on-court etiquette.

"Serena can be disingenuous off the court, make excuses and not give her opponents credit, but I will always remember her and Venus for being incredibly fair and honest on the court," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said. "Serena doesn't argue line calls. She doesn't even [use the Hawkeye] challenge. She usually just gets on with it. I've always really admired her for that.

"This was an aberration. I've never seen her like that."

All over the grounds at the U.S. National Tennis Center named for the pioneering Billie Jean King, various debates raged Sunday. Was the foot-fault call justified? Could the chair umpire have intervened sooner? Should Williams be fined, suspended or barred from playing in Monday's doubles championship with sister Venus?

Carillo called Serena Williams' behavior "unacceptable" and "uncivil" and called for a stern punishment. "You can't just slap that with a fine," she said. "You're basically telling everybody that they're allowed to threaten and curse and it's all within the rules. I don't understand the message. It hurts the sport."

Rennae Stubbs, the Tennis Channel analyst and veteran doubles player, was more sympathetic. "It was a very tough situation," she said after she and fellow Aussie Samantha Stosur fell to defending champions Cara Black and Liezel Huber in the semifinal round.

"As a volatile athlete, I feel my emotions as Serena does," Stubbs said. "We've been back and forth in this debate in the locker room. There's such ambiguity on foot-fault calls. Her movement is so minute, millimeters, it probably happens all the time. In that situation it was unfortunate that the lineswoman called it. On the other hand, you can't do what [Williams] did.

"I think Serena, looking back on it, would probably choose to not react the way she did. The pressure these athletes are under is what people don't understand. To feel you're having your title taken away from you by a line judge is tough."

Serena Williams first came into view in the late '90s as the sequel in her family's burgeoning legend, the little sister tabbed by her father as the more talented one, a sturdy, self-confident teenager who chattered about skateboarding and her struggles with Algebra II.

Serena soon surged past Venus, dominating both her sibling and the rest of the women's tour in a scorched-earth campaign for a couple of years. Their matches tended to be anticlimactic, and their effort against each other was sometimes questioned.

Then came the random, dramatic murder of their older sister. Serena was beset by injuries, both external and internal. Her pursuit of "other interests" like acting and fashion was blamed for her slide in the rankings. She continued to play on and off, but for all intents and purposes Serena vanished for a while.

People tend to have made their minds up about the Williamses one way or the other long ago, but since Serena roared back to win the 2007 Australian Open -- she has captured three more majors since, for a total of 11 -- there's been a subtle shift. With other top women dropping out due to injury or disinterest, the sisters' continued ability to rise to the occasion has stood out in contrast, and they have played some compelling matches against each other. Serena has opened up on issues ranging from her body image to her love life to her grief at her sister's death. (Her autobiography was released earlier this month.) In recent months, her preferred medium has been Twitter, but that chirpy line of communication went silent Sunday.

"I think she was feeling the pressure of defending [the U.S. Open title], she's been talking up being No. 1, now she has to back it up," Navratilova said. "The match with Kim was as good as a final and it all just got to her. Kim stood up to her, didn't play dead, and I think she panicked a little bit."

Williams may be judged more harshly because the episode is nearly unprecedented in women's tennis. Perennial hotheads like John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors may have been hammered for some of their excesses, but it also lent them a folk-hero patina of sorts. That's unlikely to happen with Williams.

"Women definitely pay a higher price for the same 'crime,'" Navratilova said. "When Martina Hingis walked around the net to question a line call at the French Open, the crowd was on her case like I couldn't believe. Jimmy Connors did the same thing, they booed him when he did it, and then he won the next two points and they were cheering for him again."

Carillo said she doubted the incident would seriously affect the way history will measure Williams, and Stubbs agreed.

"I think Serena will go down as one of the greatest champions who ever played the game, and she and her sister are incredible ambassadors," Stubbs said. "Part of me is very disappointed in Serena and part of me knows how she feels. She made a mistake and I forgive her for being human. I feel bad for her today."

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