Tennis players have long broken rackets in anger, but no smashed racket has reverberated more than the Wilson Blade that Serena Williams wrecked during her U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka in 2018.
The outburst cost Williams a point, which ignited an argument with the chair umpire and eventually prompted a game penalty. Soon after, she lost the match, starting a cascading controversy about sexism, racism and rules enforcement in tennis.
Now, that racket has become an unusual piece of sports memorabilia. It will be up for sale starting Monday, by Goldin Auctions. The opening bid is $2,000, but the price is expected to reach five figures by the time the event closes Dec. 7.
"I think the low end would be $10,000, and I wouldn't be surprised if it goes to $25,000 or $50,000," said Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions.
The racket is one of 1,600 items in the auction, which includes one of Jesse Owens' Olympic gold medals. How did a racket that might have ended up in the trash get to an auction house?
In September 2018, Williams, who was playing her second Grand Slam final of the year after returning to the tour following her daughter's birth, broke the racket in the second set against Osaka.
She had lost the first set, 6-2, and in the second game of the second set, she received a code violation for illegal coaching. She disputed the charge and seemed not to realize that she had been given an official warning.
When Williams frittered away a brief advantage a few games later with sloppy play, she bashed her racket on the court - earning a second code violation, which cost her a point.
But she was not aware of that as she sat down in her chair for a changeover. Williams initially put the racket on the ground, according to Justin Arrington-Holmes, a U.S. Open ball boy since 2013. Then she turned and handed the racket to him.
It was not until Williams took the court and was told again that she had lost the point that the argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos escalated. She eventually called him a "thief," earned another code violation and a game penalty, and called tournament officials to the court to plead her case.
The match's chaotic ending suddenly imbued the broken racket with significance.
Arrington-Holmes said that he did not speak to Williams when she gave him the racket but that they had spoken after the match and had taken a picture together. She told him he could keep the racket.
Williams and her sister Venus Williams have gone out of their way to be friendly to him over the years, he said.
"A lot of players are nice, but some, like Serena and Venus, care a little more and say hello and make an effort to learn your name and create a relationship," said Arrington-Holmes, a premed biology major at Boston College who turns 22 this month.
Tennis has long been a part of his life. He learned the sport at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program and then played in tournaments and for Trinity School. He is a practice player for the Boston College tennis team. (Playing full time would conflict with his studies, he said.)
After the Open, Arrington-Holmes put the racket in his closet and left for Boston. This summer, he spotted the racket while cleaning at home. A friend suggested he sell it to Brigandi Coins and Collectibles in New York City. A little extra money was appealing to a college student, so Arrington-Holmes took it to the store, where, he said, the buyer told him that he knew little about tennis memorabilia and was unsure how much resale value it might have.
Offered $500, Arrington-Holmes accepted without bargaining; he provided a letter certifying the racket's provenance, saying Williams had "gifted" him the racket during their postmatch conversation.
He did not really think about the racket again until being contacted for this article, when he was shocked to discover that it was being auctioned off for far more money.
"Looking back I wish I'd had someone help me with the process," he said. "I was not familiar with how any of this works. I just wanted to get rid of it."
Chris Brigandi, who handled the racket for the store, could not be reached for comment. But an employee said the store had sold the racket and was not the party putting it up for auction. Goldin said the seller wished to remain anonymous.
Sports items with such negative connotations are rare at auctions, Goldin said. Notable exceptions have been memorabilia from the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series fixing scandal, the broken bat Roger Clemens fired at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and Tom Brady's "Deflategate" football.
Goldin's house previously auctioned off the glove worn by Bill Buckner when he failed to field Mookie Wilson's grounder in the 1986 World Series and the agreement signed by Pete Rose when he was banished from Major League Baseball, which sold for $86,000 in 2016.
The auction house does not contact athletes to confirm an item's authenticity - with 1,600 objects for this auction that would be logistically overwhelming, Goldin said, adding that athletes sometimes become upset when they learn something of theirs is being sold. (Williams and her representatives did not respond to several interview requests for this article.)
In addition to Arrington-Holmes' letter, Goldin added, his company hired a company that uses high-density, high-resolution photo matching to determine the authenticity of the racket.
While Arrington-Holmes no longer has any rights to the racket, he said he hoped that if it did sell for tens of thousands of dollars, the current owner would not pocket all of it.
"They could give a few thousand to a charity or a place like Harlem Junior Tennis," he said. "I just hope they are looking out for the greater good."
Stuart Miller c.2019 The New York Times Company