NEW YORK -- Oracene Williams shook her head at the television screen. It was 10 minutes after all hell had broken loose at the U.S. Open and the mother of Serena Williams found herself nodding in agreement with Kim Clijsters. "I'm like her," Oracene said, pointing at the Belgian who had just defeated her daughter in the semifinals. "I really don't know what happened."
What happened at 10:52 p.m on Saturday night was one of the most bizarre conclusions to a match in U.S. Open history.
After Serena had been called for a foot fault on her second serve to go match point down, the No. 2 seed cursed at the lineswoman who had made the call. The lineswoman then walked over to the chair umpire and reported Serena for verbal abuse. Because she had already received an earlier warning for smashing a racket, Serena was handed an automatic point penalty for a second violation. That gave Clijsters a 6-4, 7-5 victory. The unseeded Belgian will play No. 9 seed Caroline Wozniacki on Sunday night for the U.S. Open championship.
Asked what she said to the line judge, Williams said, "Well, I said something that I guess they gave me a point penalty," she said. "Unfortunately it was on match point. What did I say? You didn't hear?"
Looking at a tape of the incident, including one broadcast on ESPN, it appeared Williams said, "I swear to God, I'm [bleep] taking this ball and I'm shoving it down your [bleep] throat."
In a statement handed out after midnight, tournament referee Brian Earley said, "Serena Williams was assessed a code violation warning for racket abuse after losing the first set 6-4.
"At 5-6, 15-30, Serena was called for a foot fault on her second serve, making the score 15-40. She then yelled something at the line umpire, who reported it to the chair umpire. Based on the report, Serena was assessed a code violation point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, ending the match."
Serena said she did not threaten the linesperson. "I've never been in a fight in my whole life, so I don't know why she would have felt threatened." Serena said. "I didn't threaten. I didn't say ... I don't remember anymore to be honest. I was in the moment."
Everyone seemed to be in the moment afterward as calm was in short supply in the hallways below Ashe Stadium. Serena's agent, Jill Smoller, yelled at a cameraman who was shooting footage of Serena before the press conference. Smoller later signaled to a USTA official handing the press conference to cut the question-and-answer session short. To its credit, the USTA conducted a normal postmatch press conference.
Curiously, Serena said she thought she foot-faulted. "I'm pretty sure I did," she said. "If she called a foot fault, she must have seen a foot fault. I mean, she was doing her job. I'm not going to knock her for not doing her job."
Serena was particularly gracious to Clijsters, who has embarked on one of the most remarkable second acts in sports. The 26-year-old Belgian, who ended a 27-month retirement in August, is the first mother to reach a Grand Slam final since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won the 1980 Wimbledon title. She is one of six players to have defeated both Williams sisters in the same tournament and the only player to perform that feat twice (she also did it at the 2002 Tour Championships).
Clijsters is projected to return to the rankings next week for the first time since she was removed on May 14, 2007, following her retirement. If she wins the final, she could break into the top 20. That would equal the achievement of Andrea Jaeger, who set the tour record with the best debut ranking in 1980. After the Williams match, Reuters called her "the poster girl for working mothers."
"She just said, Good luck, I hope you win," Clijsters said when asked what Serena told her after the match. "You know, we always got along well, and I think it's just unfortunate that a battle like that has to end like that. Just unfortunate."
It was a strange end to a long and wet day. The first ball for the Clijsters-Williams match went up at 9:21 p.m. Arthur Ashe Stadium was eerily empty at the beginning of the match. At one point in the second set, SI.com counted just 27 people in the promenade (upper deck).
But Ashe Stadium was a parade compared to the action next door at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Ten minutes after the start of the Clijsters-Williams match, unseeded Yanina Wickmayer hit a backhand into the net against Wozniacki to start their match. The two semifinals were played simultaneously, though there was a distinctly undercard feel for Wozniacki's 6-3, 6-3 win at Armstrong. The lower bowl filled up only after the Williams-Clijsters match concluded. The attendance for the majority of the Wozniacki-Wickmayer match was about 300 people.
Clijsters won the first set in a crisp 35 minutes after Williams netted a backhand on her serve. Williams then slammed her racket down twice and received a warning. It was shocking moment, the first time Williams had lost a set at the Open. She dropped her serve twice in the first set and made 14 unforced errors. Clijsters ended up breaking Williams four times in the match, hitting consistently deep groundstrokes off both wings.
"It's unfortunate that a match that I was playing so well at had to end that way," Clijsters said. "You know, obviously, I'm a little confused about what happened out there, just because I was so focused. I was just trying to win that last point. Things ended up a little bit different than I expected."
Oracene Williams said she did not see the foot fault. She was sitting on the opposite side of the court in the players' box with her daughters (including Venus Williams) and other members of the Williams family. She said she had never seen such a finish involving her daughter but did offer some perspective.
"She should have kept calm," Oracene said of Serena.