Serenity Lost

The remarkable spectacle of last night’s women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tourney brings to mind some past tourneygeek thoughts about the cheating and the nature of rules.

The central question is this: was Serena cheating?

Here, in case you missed it, is a summary of what happened between Serena Williams and the chair umpire:

  1. The chair umpire notices that Serena’s coach, in the stands, is (by way of some pretty obvious hand gestures) attempting to “coach” Serena.
  2. The chair calls a “code violation” on Serena, who (by rule) is responsible for her coach’s behavior. The penalty for a first code violation is a warning. “Code violation” is a term of art in the relevant tennis rulebook, covering a wide variety of player misbehavior.
  3. Somewhat later, Serena, after a disappointing game, and smashes her racket. This is a second code violation, for which the penalty is one point. “Racket abuse” is a well-understood offense, and one that’s consistently penalized. It’s not clear that Serena realized that her coach’s transgression counted against her, or even that the first code violation had been called, so she feels that she should have had a warning rather than a penalty point.
  4. Serena, over the next few minutes, says many unpleasant things about the situation. She finally crosses a line with remarks that impugn the character of the chair umpire, and a third code violation is called. The line, it appears, is between saying that the umpire has stolen a point from her (not called a violation) and saying that the umpire is a thief (a violation).
  5. The penalty for the third violation is loss of a game. At this point, Serena is losing the match anyway, but the game she forfeits is one of only two opportunities remaining for her to break serve and get back into the match. Shortly afterwards, she succumbs and loses the match.

A couple of other necessary bits of information for understanding the situation:

  1. The TV people send a reporter into the stands to interview Serena’s coach. He admits he was coaching, and further says that he coaches on nearly every point. But he also insists that everyone else in the business routinely coaches also. He’s apparently aware that coaching is technically against the rules, but his experience is that this is a rule that’s almost never enforced. And if it is to be enforced sometimes, it will not be enforced against the sport’s biggest stars, like Serena, nor in high-profile matches like a grand slam final.
  2. Serena’s outrage is against the implication that she was cheating. She insists that she’s never in her life cheated at tennis.

There’s a subtle difference, I think, between her position, and that of her coach. The coach believes that the rule against coaching is rarely enforced, and that enforcing it against Serena in the final of a grand slam tournament is absurd.

Serena, in contrast, thinks that the rule itself is a dead letter. It’s not clear that she saw or profited from the bit of coaching that was called for a violation in this instance, but surely her coach wouldn’t be coaching on every point if Serena never saw him and profited from his advice. So when Serena insists that she’s never cheated in her life, she must be saying that coaching is not cheating.

There is, apparently, a presentable case for Serena here in terms of selective enforcement of the no-coaching rule. And she’s also got a plausible claim that her intemperate language was judged more severely than similar outbursts have been in the past. I don’t know enough to offer an opinion, but there is at least some expert opinion suggesting that the game penalty would not have been assessed against a player who was not black, female, or both.

Serena’s claim seems to be stronger. She feels that she knows, on the basis of much past experience, what the real rules are – rules that might be inferred from experience rather than read in the rulebook. And those rules do not penalize coaching, nor the words she said to the umpire.

So which rules are the real rules? Does one need to study the words of the rulebook, or is it better to study the accumulated experience of the players?

It seems to me that there is peril either way. The problem is not so much that the written rules are imperfectly understood, or unevenly applied. The problem is that tennis has allowed a gulf to open between the rules that apply in theory and those that are actually applied in practice. Once this gulf has formed, trouble is bound to follow.


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