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Serena Williams foot fault: What did she say and why?

Meltdowns are a part of tennis, but foot-fault calls – especially on crucial points – seem to drive players over the edge.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2009

A line judge leaves her chair to report an argument with Serena Williams, left, of the United States, during her match against Kim Clijsters, of Belgium, at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, on Saturday.

Darron Cummings/AP

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Serena Williams's spectacular meltdown in the semifinal of the US Open Saturday reinforces one truism of modern tennis: nothing infuriates players quite as much as the foot fault call.

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Battered and reeling in a match against Kim Clijsters, Williams was called for a foot fault on a second serve at 15-30, 5-6 in the second set. The call gave Clijsters two match points, and so incensed Williams that she began a tirade worthy of tennis's four-letter king, John McEnroe.

(Do you remember: "You cannot be serious!")

Approaching the lineswoman who made the call, shaking her racket and pointing, Williams said: "I'm going to shove this [expletive] ball down your [expletive] throat," according to CBSsports.com.

SI.com writer S.L. Price, who was in the press tribune 15 rows away, says he heard Williams say: "You better [expletive] be right."

(See a video of the entire incident here.)

Having already received a conduct warning for throwing her racket in the first set, Williams was docked a point for her outburst. At 15-40, that was match point, and Serena lost the match – 6-4, 7-5 – without hitting another ball.

Tantrums are a part of tennis. But the foot-fault tantrum appears to have a special place in the tennis world.

Perhaps this is because the rule is so inconsistently enforced. A player must not touch any part of the service line during a serve, yet line judges often ignore infractions.

What's more, some players say there is an unwritten rule that – just as hockey referees call nothing but the most blatant penalties in overtime playoff games – tennis officials should ignore seemingly ticky-tack infractions like foot faults when stakes are high.

Russian Marat Safin, no stranger to implosions on and off the court (see one about another foot fault here), had this to say in his post-match press conference about being called for a foot fault on a second serve at a crucial point of last year's US open.

"I think it was complete [expletive]."

He went on to give voice to what many fans – and perhaps Williams herself – were thinking Saturday night.

"It's difficult and it's almost impossible to make a foot fault on a second serve, and especially in the important moments you shouldn't call it."

In a qualifying round for the Rogers Cup in Montreal last month, a foot fault call on a set point caused Michael Llodra to stage a courtside sit-in (here, with pictures). He sat in his chair and refused to continue playing until the tournament organizer himself arrived.

Llodra lost his appeal, his cool, and the game. More remarkably, though, was that even as he turned things around, winning the set and eventually the match, he continued to stare at the linesman and even argue with him for another 20 minutes.

The foot fault has made news in this US Open already. When a linesman called a foot fault on Williams in the second round, she gave the linesman this stare.

Earlier, in the first round, Serena's sister, Venus, was called for seven foot faults in her first-round match. Her reaction, quite different from her sister's, was to ask: "Which foot?"

"It threw me off," Venus said later in her press conference. "After that I just got a little tentative."

In the end, she had the time to right herself on the way to a 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-3 win.

On Saturday, however, her sister did not.

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