SI.com caught up with Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price, who is covering the U.S. Open in New York, after Serena Williams was penalized on match point in her 6-4, 7-5 loss to Kim Clijsters in the semifinals Saturday night. Clijsters will play Caroline Wozniacki in the final at 9 p.m. ET Sunday.
SI.com: What the heck happened?
Price: Serena Williams broke. She snapped. That is something we've not come to expect from her. She's always been -- especially for the last 15 months since Justine Henin retired -- the most mentally strong player on tour and has taken full advantage of breakdowns from all the other women who have not been able to figure out how to mentally handle being No. 1. Suddenly she came up against a player in Kim Clijsters who was 1-7 in her lifetime and yet she proved not to be as mentally strong as Clijsters. But, for reasons that are still unclear, Clijsters was able to keep her focus and raise her game and outplay Serena on Serena's favorite stage. It was the most extraordinary end to an important Grand Slam match I have ever seen -- especially one involving so important a player. Serena Williams was about to tie Billie Jean King for Grand Slam singles titles (12). She was about to step into history. But something in the day -- maybe the great rain delays over the past two days and just the constant uncertainty they brought -- got on her nerves and she cracked first. And it's something we've rarely, if ever, seen from her.
SI.com: What did you hear her say to the lineswoman?
Price: All I heard her say was, "You better f------ be right." I did not hear the rest. I was not down on the court, but in the normal press seats about 15 rows or so up. What I saw was her raising her racket in what looked like a menacing posture, though she may not have understood this at the time. But after having heard what she did say, she clearly was verbally threatening the lineswoman, and combined with the fact that she had a ball in one hand and was raising her racket over her head with the other, I don't blame the lineswoman for feeling a bit fearful.
SI.com: How does this change Serena's legacy?
Price: Everybody had her penciled in to win this tournament. We were going to have start thinking about Serena in historical terms. Billie Jean King is one of the great American champions, if not one of the biggest names in tennis history. I don't think at her age -- she turns 28 this month -- she was going to challenge Margaret Court or Steffi Graff for career singles titles. But I thought that she was someone that we were going to have to finally say, 'You know what? This is where she belongs in history.' That we're going to have to start accounting for her in the way we've been accounting for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and all these other players. Certainly, she's a great player, but this is going to be a great blight on her career. No question about it.
SI.com: How do you explain Kim Clijsters' run?
Price: I think Kim benefited, No. 1, from the overall weakness of the women's game. She's always been a top player, but not the most mentally strong of players. And yet she's found a seam in the game between eras. After Justine Henin retired, you have so many top players -- especially here at the Open -- cracking under pressure, double faulting, committing unforced errors. She's come in very serenely, very sweetly, making no waves, and really raised her game step by step. I think she's a beneficiary of a time in the women's game where you don't have the greatest players playing at their peak. And I think also she has gotten stronger mentally because of her absence and because of having a baby.
SI.com: How good can Clijsters be heading forward?
Price: I can't imagine any man taking a two-year hiatus and, with just seven matches under his belt, rolling into a Grand Slam semi -- but it's not Clijsters' fault that there's such a void atop today's women's game. She has looked on-form and motivated here, and I fully expect her to be a factor a year from now, certainly in the top five.The only question will be her motivation once she gets past the majors and finds herself leaving her daughter for second-tier tournaments that don't generate the same thrill. But as long as she wants to be playing? The game is largely hers for the taking. I see only a handful of players who can consistently get in her way.
SI.com: How much buzz do you think the tourney loses without having Serena in it?
Price: In terms of buzz, it's the worst thing that could happen to the women's game in one sense, but it is going to bring attention to the women's game in a way that it hasn't had for quite a long time. This is a controversy. It was on television. It was full of curse words. It was the biggest star in the women's game imploding in living color. It's going to bring attention to the women's game like almost nothing else could.
SI.com: Give us your breakdown of the Clijsters-Wozniacki final.
Price: It's Caroline Wozniacki's first Grand Slam final and Kim's clearly an experienced champion, so obviously I'm going to give the nod to Kim here. I think she'll win in three sets. I will say this: Wozniacki is loose, and she too has shown presence of mind and a readiness for the big stage -- especially in handling Melanie Oudin in the quarterfinals and in her fourth-round match with Svetlana Kuznetsova, which was probably the best match of the tournament. I think it's going to be a sweetly contested match. They're both friendly; they like each other. They go back a few years. Wozniacki played an exhibition with Kim when Wozniacki was 16. There's great admiration between the two. Kim has great respect for Wozniacki, but Kim's gonna want it. She really feels like she has nothing to lose, which is a strange combination for a champion. Also, Kim is so far ahead of the schedule that she set for herself in this comeback that she's gonna be loose, too.