Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Foot (In the Mouth) Fault

No one condones Serena Williams’s profanity-laced outburst against the lines judge at the U.S. Open women’s tennis final. The petite lines judge seemed to shrink into her chair the closer a menacing Serena leaned into her, clutching a ball with index finger pointed.

Serena “lost it” on the court when the lines judge called a foot fault on her second serve, two points from losing the match, which cost her an unconstested point. The official foot fault rule states that a serve is a fault if a player, at any time in his or her service motion, touches or goes outside the imaginary extension of the center mark with either foot. Here’s the problem: The rule is an ass.

Not that it shouldn’t exist, but tennis judges should have a great deal of discretion in applying such a rule at a critical juncture of a championship tennis match. The purpose of the rule is to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage in their service game by planting their support foot over the service line. At this level, it’s called very, very infrequently.

If your pinky toe is resting a quarter inch over the line when you serve it will not give you any advantage whatsoever in your service game. Clearly, the original intent of the rule was to keep players from stepping a foot over the line, in which case their advantage would be real. In short, it’s one of those technical preemptive rules that contributes to the overall order of the game and should be more important in tennis academies and the junior levels, where young players are schooled to adhere to the game's basic rules.

I have rarely seen it called at a gamechanging juncture of a professional match.

So for a mentally myopic lines judge (believe me, they've chosen not to make such calls in such situations) to call a foot fault of inches in the decisive game, of the decisive set, of the decisive match is to me an obvious violation of the spirit of the game, superseded by the letter of the rules. The chair referee has the discretion to overrule a line judge’s call and order a point replayed. Unfortunately in this instance rather than appealing to the chair referee, Serena Williams -- one of the greatest tennis players ever -- vented her anger at the lines judge, with the game suffering as a result.

There is an unwritten rule in sports which states that referees, umpires, judges, and assorted officials should never, ever, get between the game and the players. It sounds counterintuitive, yet it’s what John Madden said with obvious frustration about great plays being called back on borderline -- literally, in Serena’s case -- calls: “You’ve got to let the players play!” Indeed, the best referees I’ve ever seen, in any sport, are those that make themselves invisible.

Had Serena said “If I could, I would take this f*g ball, and shove it down your f*g throat” to Rep. Joe Wilson instead of to the visible invisible lines judge, then everything would be all right.

The foot fault rule in tennis needs to be seriously revisited.


schmidlap said...

I totally agree with this.

But I'll go a bit further: if they won't change the rule, why can't they apply the same amazing technology they now use to determine in/out calls on appeal? I would think it's almost exactly the same thing. The computer should be able to determine whether her foot was on the baseline or not, just like a ball.

I'm Not Ned said...

I'll disagree with you on this one. (Meh, one out of how many dozens?)

A line is a line. Cross it and it's called. That's the rule and it's that simple. She's a professional. She should be able to follow that simple concept.

Look at an NFL lineman. He squats face to face with 300+ guys a foot from his brain bucket who's sole goal is to knock him on his ass. Yet he waits, and waits, and *snap*! Go to soon and the entire team is penalized. In the Central Michigan v. MSU game is was the single official call that cost MSU the game when CMU got a second chance but 5 yards closer.

To me, the violation of the spirit of the game comes from officials failing to enforce the rules of the game. That changes the game so call it something else. Like pro basketball players being allowed to travel or being given all day to hang around in the key. That's not basketball.

Follow the rules or go home a loser.

And for the love of all that's competitive, don't harass the officials who call you on your violations. That's the epitome of a poor sport, not a champion.

Carlos said...

I'm saying it's a bad rule that needs to be changed. How many times have you seen the pro tennis players commit foot faults? I've seen plenty of uncalled foot faults in any given match, especially in the ball toss windup. Ever notice how a player will lift his or her support foot on its heel, then come down on it to power through the serve? That's an uncalled foot fault (by the rules) an inordinate number of times. It's a ridiculous rule, and it should be changed, tightened up, clarified, if only because were it consistently enforced the players would spend more time yelling at the chair ump than playing.

Ultimately, the good rules bolster the spirit of the game rather than undermine it. The bad rules in every sport are identified and eventually changed.

As for Serena's poor sportsmanship, no argument from me.