The XX Factor

Kim Clijsters vs. Serena

This is a guest post from Caitlin Moscatello, who has written for Sports Illustrated and Salon .

Last night while Kim Clijsters celebrated her U.S. Open victory, Serena Williams walked on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and quipped that singer Pink, suspended high above the stage, wouldn’t “have to worry about stepping over any lines” during her performance. The statement was a clear nod to Williams’ semifinal match against Clijsters, but much of the humor was lost on the crowd. The U.S.’s top female tennis player might be eager to make light of her behavior, but the real line that she crossed wasn’t the white one marking the court-it was the moral boundary she jumped over when she threatened a line judge (a decision that, in addition to an earlier warning, cost her $10,500 in fines and potentially more).

It went like this: After the first set of the match, Williams was issued a warning for slamming down her racket. Then in what proved to be the final game, she was called for a foot fault on her second serve. The double fault gave Clijsters match point, putting Williams on the brink of losing. Her tirade resulted in a point penalty that made Clijsters the winner. The call was certainly questionable, but it in no way justified what came next. Williams raised her racket at the judge and said, “I swear to God I’m [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that? I swear to God.”

The incident is damaging for the game in the United States-for the first time in the 41-year Open era, an American didn’t compete in a singles final-but mostly it just hurts Williams. As I wrote last week , Williams, while by no means struggling, is still well behind Maria Sharapova when it comes to endorsement earnings. Looks definitely play a role in this, but so does likability. It almost goes without saying that Williams won’t be any more appealing to sponsors now.

Also hurting her bid for Miss Congeniality is that in a post-match press conference, Williams failed to apologize for throwing a temper tantrum at one of the most-watched women’s sporting events in the world. She rejected the opportunity again yesterday in a released statement that said she “handled the situation poorly” but nowhere mentioned that she was sorry-a cop-out of owning her actions without owning up to them.

Williams’s lack of acknowledgement has only helped fuel speculation over whether or not she was motivated to make her seemingly inevitable loss to Clijsters (the Belgian player would have had a sizable lead even without the penalties) appear less than definitive. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind.) Meanwhile, female fans have rallied around Clijsters, who returned to the sport this year after giving birth to her now 18-month-old daughter. Perhaps it’s that women are proud to see a mother kick ass on the court. But even more, it could be that fans are simply grateful to see a player respect the rules and win by them. If the rest of us have to play nice in the sandbox, shouldn’t the same be true for the athletes we admire?

Whether or not redemption for Williams is possible will become clear this afternoon when she teams up with her sister Venus for the women’s doubles final. Unfortunately for Venus, Serena might have cost them the favor of the fans. On the plus side, the crowd at Arthur Ashe is likely too polite to start booing-a lesson Serena should take to heart.