One of the strangest events in tennis occurred Sunday night. Serena Williams, the defending champion, was playing Kim Clijsters in the semi final of the US open. Clijsters, 18 months since giving birth to her first child, was ahead one set in the best out of three match, and Williams was serving at 5-6, 15-30. In other words, Clijsters was two points away from winning the match. Williams is ranked number 2 in the world and was ranked number 2 in the tournament. Clijsters was unranked and not expected to get as far as she did. (She ended up winning the tournament the next day).
At a critical point in the match, a lineswoman called a foot fault on Williams on her second serve, making the score at 15-40 and giving Clijsters match point. Williams then commenced a profanity laced tirade at the lineswoman, and appeared to threaten the lineswoman. The chair umpire stopped the match, the head of the tournament was called onto the court and ruled that Williams would incur a point penalty thereby giving Clijsters the match. The fact that Williams was given a point penalty in and of itself was not the death knell of her chances of winning the match; rather it was the timing of the point penalty, on match point, that ended her chances.
Did Serena foot fault? Instant replay did not provide a good enough angle for anybody to determine if the lineswoman made the correct call or not. Should the lineswoman have called a foot fault at such a crucial point in the match? Really, that’s not the issue. She was just making a call, which was what her job required. She might have been wrong. But it was Williams’ reaction to the call that cost her the match. She could have “challenged” the call, the chair umpire would have reviewed the replay tape and would have made a call on the foot fault herself. At worst, Williams would have been down match point. She would have still been in the match. (Williams has since been fined $10,000 and may face stiffer penalties according to the USTA).
The lesson here is that once you put yourself in the arena, whether it’s center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, or in front of a jury, you subject yourself to “calls” (known at trial as “rulings”) that are sometimes unfair and sometimes flat out wrong. Judges make mistakes. Court rulings are simply part of the risk. The jury could get your case wrong, not find your testimony or that of your witnesses believable, or not award you enough compensation for your injuries; again, that is part of the risk of going to trial.
Serena Williams’ tirade is also a lesson to litigants. Testifying at a deposition or at trial is stressful. But, simply put, it is not in your best interest to lose your composure at a deposition or at trial. No matter how much we prepare you for the expected or the unexpected in advance of your deposition or trial, reliving the events which caused you injury and seeing the person who caused your pain is an emotional experience that must be anticipated and dealt with. You must put you best game face on and accept the consequences.
This is also a teaching point about the dangers of social media to personal injury litigants. I’ve written before about the fact that insurance companies are trolling social media sites like Facebook to find images (photos/videos) of litigants which might minimize the insurance company’s exposure in personal injury cases. Serena Williams misadventure at the US Open will be forever on Youtube. Be careful about what you put on Facebook.