Nicholas Lezard: Now Serena's just like one of us

A sportsperson's character is revealed in defeat, not victory

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Two crucial sporting events last weekend: in the semi-finals of the US Open, Serena Williams, making a mockery of her first name, loses her cool and, after offering to ram a tennis ball down a lineswoman's throat, uses the now-immortal words associated with tennis tantrums: "Are you serious?" Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, Emmanuel Adebayor bangs in a goal for Man City against his old team, Arsenal, from whom he parted on less-than-friendly terms, runs the length of the pitch and makes an inflammatory celebratory gesture that drives quite a few Arsenal fans almost berserk with rage and nearly causes a riot.

This is good. I want my tennis stars to be flamboyant, characterful, and not above a little skullduggery. Fred Perry drove one fastidious player to humiliating defeat simply by playing with his trouser-pocket linings hanging out, and once bribed a line-painter to paint the service lines three inches nearer the net when playing against an opponent with a famously heavy serve; John McEnroe – who, depressingly, if inevitably, has tut-tutted at Williams's behaviour – would use his rage as a means of unsettling his opponent; Ilie Nastase would, to use a sporting metaphor, throw the toys out of the pram regularly enough to earn the nickname "Nasty", and, let's not forget, ensure that whenever he was on the telly during Wimbledon, a nation was glued to its collective set.

For it is not only victory that defines sportspeople's character, it is how they take defeat. Anyone can do a weedy, unconvincing fist-pump à la Tim Henman when he wins a point; it's what they do when things go against them that helps us see them as human beings, and not just sporting machines. Serena Williams has suddenly become one of us. The only thing I can remember Pete Sampras for is sticking his disgusting fat tongue out in concentration between serves.

As for Adebayor, his crazy, irresponsible gesture brings something primeval back into the spectacle of a football match. As it happens, such support as I entertain for the game is directed towards Arsenal, and even my tepid blood simmered a little when I heard what he'd done. It was stupid and reckless – but boy it added a little spice to the game.

I use the word "blood" advisedly. For we are living, when it comes to sport, in bloodless times. The most depressing sight I have ever seen at a sports ground – and it looks as though I will continue to do it until someone comes to his senses – is that of the stewards at a cricket match, arrayed around the boundary, facing in towards the crowd, as if on the permanent look-out for mischief. During India v Pakistan, yes, maybe. But England v Australia? Come on.

I am old enough to remember being allowed to sit on the grass, beyond the rope, during a match, and to run on to the pitch after an exciting conclusion. I remember when West Indian fans could bang cans of Red Stripe together at the Oval (and, I distinctly recall, smoke enormous spliffs while doing so). And now everything is antiseptic. You can even get thrown out of some games for bringing in the wrong brand of soft drink. We have gone too far. Sport is for the baying, excitable mob. Let the players show us the way.

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