Success Lessons from Serena’s Meltdown

Commitment to taking personal responsibility for your success is one of the keys to career and life success that I discuss in several of my books: Straight Talk for Success, Your Success GPS, and 42 Rules to Jumpstart Your Professional Success.  If you want to succeed, you must commit to three things.  First, you must take personal responsibility for your success.  Only you can make you a success.  You need to be willing to do the things necessary to succeed.  Second, you must set high goals — and then do whatever it takes to achieve them.   Third, stuff happens; as you go through life you will encounter many problems and setbacks.  You need to react positively to the negative stuff and move forward toward your goals.

In this post, I’d like to address the third point above.  I’m a tennis fan.  I also a big Serena Williams fan.  I think that she is the best female tennis player in the world.  I was really looking forward to seeing her repeat as the US Open champion this year. 

Unfortunately, on Saturday night, she lost in the semi finals to Kim Clijsters, who went on to win the championship.  Serena not only lost, she lost in a bizarre manner that could have been avoided had she chosen to react positively to an unfair setback she encountered during the match.

Serena was down one set to none and serving to stay in the match at 5 – 6, 15 – 30 in the second set.  She unleashed a massive serve – as only Serena can.  Unfortunately, the lines person called her for a foot fault on her second serve – stepping on the line as she served.  I watched the replay of the serve and it did not appear to me that Serena foot faulted.  Also, a foot fault is a rare call to begin with, and one that is very seldom called late in a match in a grand slam semi final.  It was a very bad break for Serena, and something that could not be reversed.  It made the score 15 – 40.

At first, she took a couple of deep breaths, and walked up to the service line to serve for the next point.  At this point I was thinking, “Good for you Serena, you’re not going to let this bad call kill your chances of winning this point and the match.”  It appeared that she was going to suck it up, react positively to the bad call, and do whatever she could do to win the match.

Then she melted down completely.  Instead of serving, you walked toward the lines judge with a ball in her hand and said something like, “I’m going to take this f’ing ball and f’ing shove it down your f’ing throat.  She also shook her racquet at the lines judge in a threatening manner. 

The umpire called the lines judge over to ask what was said, and then called the tournament referee out on to the court.  The tournament referee ruled that Serena’s actions constituted a code violation.  Serena had received another code violation in the first set when she broke her racquet in frustration.  The rules say that the first code violation results in a warning – many players get them in the course of a match – and that a second code violation results in a point being awarded to the opponent. 

But, because of the foot fault on the second serve, Serena was at match point.  The one point penalty gave the game, set and match to Kim Clijsters.  Serena lost her chance to defend her US Open title.

I wish I was writing a different post, saying that Serena managed to shake off the bad call and use it to turn around the match.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  But, to use a term we seem to hear a lot these days, there is a “teachable moment” here. 

Serena was angry over the call.  And, from what I can tell she had a right to be as it was a bad call.  On the other hand, she is an adult human being, capable of making decisions for herself.  While it may not have seemed like it in the heat of the moment, she chose to confront the lines judge in a most inappropriate manner.  She could have made the choice to gather herself and continue the match.

We’re all faced with choices like this every day – usually with much less at stake.  Ironically, as I was getting ready to post this article, I hit a wrong key and completely lost everything I had written.  I had to smile to myself because I was faced with a choice just like Serena.  I had a bad break and lost an entire article.  I could do any of a number of things – pout, curse my bad luck or carelessness, not do a post today, or rewrite the article making it better than the previous one.  I chose to rewrite, and I think this version is better than the one I accidentally deleted. 

I’m not equating my little problem with the one Serena faced on Saturday.  She had a lot more at stake than me.  I lost about 45 minutes of my day rewriting this blog post.  She lost the US Open semi final.  However, I do want to point out that as you go through life, stuff happens – good stuff, bad stuff, stupid stuff, unfair stuff.  What’s important is that you react to the stuff that happens in a positive manner. 

You get to choose how you react to the people and events around you.  I suggest that you choose to react positively to whatever happens.  If you do, you’ll be on your way to creating a successful life and career.

The common sense point here is simple.  Successful people commit to taking personal responsibility for the lives and careers.  Choosing to react positively to people and events is a good way to take responsibility for yourself.  In the US Open semifinal, Serena Williams had a choice to make.  Unfortunately for her, she made a poor one.  She let a bad call by a lines judge get the best of her.  As a result, she lost the match and the chance to defend her title.  This was a dramatic and very public display of what not to do when things go against you.  The next time you find yourself giving in to your anger over something unfair remember Serena, and choose to react positively to the situation.

That’s my take on how to deal with the unfairness of life.  What’s yours?  Please take a few minutes to leave a comment, sharing your thoughts with us.  As always, thanks for reading.


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