Another controversial foot-fault call is not what Serena Williams needs right now. Her increasingly staggering tennis record, highlighted again by her recent Wimbledon triumph, is more than an effective counterweight to any residual tut-tutting over her personal China Syndrome experience at last year's U.S. Open.
That tirade against a lineswoman for a foot-fault ruling, which led to Williams losing her semifinal on a penalty point at match point, and a record fine of $82,500, "was kind of a McEnroe moment, if you will," said Mike Paul, the public relations strategist and self-styled Reputation Doctor. "It was not a Williams moment, because it was something McEnroe did consistently, not her."
Indeed, Williams' on-court behavior historically has been the equal of her admirably dominant play. At 28, she has won 13 major tournament titles and, more remarkably, has history's second-best winning percentage in Grand Slam championship finals, at .813 (13-3). Only Margaret Court, playing in an era with far less depth in women's tennis, did better - .917 (11-1) - and, compared to Williams, the championship-final success rate of Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova (18-14) and Chris Evert (18-16) pales badly. (Steffi Graf was 22-9, a .709 percentage.)
Yet, as her Open dust-up crystallized a certain lightning-rod aspect to her career, Williams' current obfuscation over a foot injury, tied to her disappearance from the summer hardcourt seasons, likewise has put something of a dark cloud over her champion's glow. And recalls that she often has withdrawn from lesser events, claiming injury.
Mixed messages from Williams' support team and the Women's Tennis Association, taken together with photographs appearing on celebrity web sites, have lured anyone paying attention into a maze of incomplete information in recent days:
She cut her right foot, either on the bottom or the top, on broken glass at a restaurant in Europe days after Wimbledon. She played an exhibition, reportedly for $1 million, in Brussels shortly after cutting the foot - thanks, she told reporters early last month, to "Belgian doctors and waffles" - then withdrew from tournament commitments in Istanbul, Cincinnati and Montreal. Published photos showed her wearing high heels, with a small bandage on top of her right foot; others showed her walking in a knee-high post-surgical boot. She underwent "surgery" or some other medical "procedure."
According to Dr. Edward Fryman, who specializes in podiatric sports medicine at the Seaford Footcare Center, details of Williams' injury are "very vague and keep switching places." If she stepped on glass or another foreign object, Fryman said, there could be an infection. There could be the need for a large incision to remove the object, and for stitches.
It is possible a tendon was cut and, depending on which tendon, could require anywhere from three to eight weeks to heal fully. Fryman would put a patient who was cut on the bottom of her foot on crutches - "and you wouldn't want her wearing high heels." The knee-high boot - a "cam walker" - would immobilize the foot but not prevent weight bearing.
Shortly after last year's Open, author Kate Harding, writing for Salon.com, wondered whether some critics overreacted to Williams' show of anger because they saw her as "a rich, powerful black woman who needs to be put in her place."
Paul, who is black, allowed that, "when there are complaints, maybe there's a racial thing. I don't think so."
More likely, he reasoned, "Some people are jealous. Some are historical advocates of the system, which [both Serena and her sister Venus] bucked [avoiding the junior tennis ranks]. And, out of frustration, some feel, how can we end this dominance?" That the sisters have emphasized their non-tennis interests, fashion and general celebrity, "is another example of not being in the system," Paul said.
He added this, however: "One thing I would say is that there have been times they have not had the right counsel in terms of public relations. If they were my clients, I'd say, 'You don't want people to doubt your word.' And the easiest way to do that [with the foot injury questions], is to let the doctor speak. And that's it."