Unruly French crowd too much to take

AT the end of a long, tumultuous and ultimately demoralising afternoon, Oracene Price sat down in the players' lounge, composed enough to smile, to surmise that she was "not going to have a heart attack" over a semifinal defeat in a Grand Slam event.

HARVEY ARATONNew York Times News Service

AT the end of a long, tumultuous and ultimately demoralising afternoon, Oracene Price sat down in the players' lounge, composed enough to smile, to surmise that she was "not going to have a heart attack" over a semifinal defeat in a Grand Slam event.

Serena Williams (right) shakes hands with Justine Henin-Hardenne after going down in three sets in the French Open women's semifinals. — Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

It was, conversely, understandable how her daughter, still three months shy of her 22nd birthday, could be brokenhearted and moved to tears by the unruliness of a crowd that desperately wished for her to lose.

On a court with the initials P (for Philippe) and C (for Chatrier), political correctness and primal compassion were lost on unfeeling fans who combined with a whirlwind named Justin Henin-Hardenne to put the first dent in Serena Williams' third-set psyche and Grand Slam armour in more than a year. The fans' behaviour was ugly and everything else that Price would call it: arrogant, lacking in class and understanding of the game.

"She knew it was a dangerous job when she took it," Price said of Serena, her youngest daughter, after Henin-Hardenne advanced to an all-Belgian final against Kim Clijsters with a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory. "That's what I always told her."

It made perfect sense that Henin-Hardenne, an underdog with a French name, would be the overwhelming favourite, especially after Clijsters had qualified for the final by defeating the Russian Nadia Petrova in straight sets. Geographic and cultural partisanship are one thing. Turning raucously on Williams the way the fans did in the third set, even cheering her first-service faults, was patently cruel.

"A little bit too much," Henin-Hardenne would say, admitting she was the beneficiary of what she could not condone.

Price did not invoke the undercurrent of race and Serena said she didn't think the derision was related to the recent political tensions between the United States and France. So what was it? Since the Williams sisters have taken over women's tennis, winning nine Grand Slams from the 1999 U.S. Open on — the last four by Serena — it is always something.

Standing not far from Price, Pam Shriver commented that the fans' reaction was mild compared with their treatment of Martina Hingis in the 1999 final against Steffi Graf. Hingis was punished for a temper tantrum when the match turned for Graf. All Williams did was point to a couple of marks in the red clay on balls called in by the line judge before the umpire subsequently checked and overruled.

On what is her least favourable surface, this wasn't Serena's most memorable effort, she was quick to admit. Henin-Hardenne, a rising star, had beaten Williams earlier this spring on clay, as had Amelie Mauresmo. For that matter, Clijsters had her down by 5-1 in the third set of the Australian Open semi-final on a hard court in January before a collapse that had nothing to do with being physically outclassed. No one is unbeatable, or indestructible, despite such unthinking portrayals of the Williams sisters during their respective runs of Tour dominance.

This has always made me uncomfortable, the notion that they represent some huge leap on the athletic evolutionary chain, the genetic engineering experiment of their father, Richard.

Yes, the slender Venus and the buff Serena are superior athletes, but they are not the only tall power players in this era of big-babe tennis. Muscle doesn't make the champion, and for all the requisite size and racket technology, women's tennis especially is still a game that often comes down to guile and raw nerve.

So seldom have the Williams sisters been given the credit they deserve for their mental acumen and toughness — too often under adverse conditions — you wonder if, in the context of them being viewed as machines, it leads to misadventures like on that Thursday, fans forgetting that this is a 21-year-old woman, a human being.

As she has since winning here last year, Serena had persevered, reaching the third set despite being outplayed for most of the first two. With the benefit of the first chair overrule, she had broken her sagging opponent at love for 4-2. The second call on a 0-15 point in the seventh game turned the fans loose.

Price said she thought most of the louts were upstairs, in the cheaper seats. (Some did cry out for the others to stop and a few went so far as to cheer a later Henin-Hardenne fault.)

Stunned, Williams surrendered the break. "It doesn't make it any harder," she would say later. "I just." She paused to let the tears flow and stuttered, "Actually, that's a lie."

Henin-Hardenne, dealing with her own nerves, would soon fail to serve out the match at 5-4, double-faulting twice. It seemed certain that Williams would soon quiet her tormentors for good but, as Price would say: "She was nervous. I think both players were, because of the crowd."

Serena was rattled, serving poorly, offering up drop shots to a speedy player. Henin-Hardenne broke back and, finally after 2 hours 20 minutes, served out the match.

Price, like Serena, said Henin-Hardenne deserved to win. When Richard Williams was on Tour with Venus and Serena, he often brought disdain upon the family by antagonising opponents. Price, now divorced from Richard, has been the essence of comportment and class.

Asked how she — as coach as well as mom — could be so calm so soon after the match, she laughed and said, "I'm a cool lady."

Serena Williams lost her composure in a theatre of howling fools. She and her Grand Slam streak deserved far more appreciation and respect upon its end.