It’s Time to Give the Foot Fault Its Due
The Serena Williams incident during the US Open shows a disappointing side of our sport. Plenty of people have already taken her to task, and I see no need to continue that. But I do want to comment on what prompted her meltdown — the foot fault. Williams, remember, didn’t lose the match on the foot-fault call — that call was made on second serve, 15-30, which gave Kim Clijsters two match points.
What bothers me is that foot-faulting is considered the ugly stepchild in tennis — when in fact, it’s a longstanding rule that often is misunderstood and simply isn’t enforced enough. That’s why players, both pros and recreational, feel the need to complain and whine about foot faults.
In the Williams incident, many people blamed the lineswoman for calling a foot fault. But the official was doing her job. It’s simple: If a player steps on or over the baseline before striking the serve, it’s a foot fault. (Btw, it’s Rule 18 in the ITF Rules of Tennis.) It’s just like if a serve lands outside the service box — it’s a fault. In either case, it shouldn’t matter when in the match the infraction occurred.
It doesn’t help tennis when commentators like John McEnroe say officials should not call foot faults late in the match or on critical points. That’s just nonsense and sends the wrong message to millions who play the sport. If anything, pros should know they’re being scrutinized more for foot faults.
And it’s just as irresponsible when such generally esteemed tennis writers like Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle say the USTA should release the name of the lineswoman who made the “inexcusable call,” that she “had no feel for the circumstances,” and that she should “be banned” from working at the Open. That’s not only flat-out wrong, but it again sends the wrong message.
The lineswoman did everything right; in fact, how she handled her job should be a lesson in exemplary duty and stepping up when the occasion calls for it. To have handled this situation any differently than any other — whether a pro or rec match — would have been unfair to the players and to the sport.
Whether it’s at the Open or on the local park, club or school courts, everybody immediately assumes a foot-fault call is incorrect. But we all know foot faults are common in rec play; we’ve all played with and against players who do it. For both adults and juniors, we can’t overlook this unfair advantage — we have to make sure they know foot-faulting is against the rules. In clinics and lessons, we need to make sure students are aware of this aspect of the service motion. Get rec players used to the fact that foot faults should be called and it will save a lot of squabbling on the courts later.
Of course, whether you want to enforce the rule in a hit-and-giggle social game is one thing. But for tournaments and leagues, players need to be aware that they may get called on it. Let’s not leave it up to John McEnroe to pick and choose the rules of tennis we should enforce.