Lewis Frain, Joel McInally
The scenes at the US Open final were not the nicest to watch; it seems a general opinion has been formed which says Serena Williams has let people down and is a disgrace to tennis and even to America. Firstly, I should make it clear that a competitor verbally berating an official is not something I want to see happening at any time. However, this is part and parcel of elite sport and with Serena Williams we are talking of the highest of elite athletes. The events at the US Open were the actions of a competitor feeling their chances of victory were being unfairly challenged by the referee.
Surely even Serena’s harshest critics can’t honestly say that other elite athletes would act too differently? I’d struggle to count the number of on court outbursts we have seen from Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray over the years. Why do we forgive these players but hesitate with Serena Williams? How someone behaves between the ropes is not a great portrait of how they are as a person. The most recent comparison to the Williams episode I can think of comes from this year’s UEFA Champions League. Legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was sent off in the final minute after he aggressively confronted referee Michael Oliver who had controversially (though correctly) awarded a penalty against Buffon’s Juventus team during their quarter-final match with Real Madrid. In the aftermath, Buffon further berated Oliver publicly declaring him “an animal” that has “a rubbish bin instead of a heart”. Buffon’s reputation wasn’t really questioned beyond the first day af-ter the event. In fact, many defended Buffon due to the context of the match and his career. Chasing the Champions League, the one trophy which has eluded him during his career, in his final year with Juventus was huge and it’s easy to see why Buffon would be so frustrated with how it ended.
Context is also important when looking at why Serena Williams reacted like she did. The US Open marked her second opportunity at equalling Margaret Court’s tally of grand slam wins this summer and falling short once again was sure to fire her up. Given that Williams is nearly 37 and only just returning to the tour after giving birth to her first child, she clearly recognises she is running out of time at the top of tennis. Given this context, I struggle to believe that people can’t understand how Williams reacted aggressively when faced not just with her opponent besting her but the umpire continually penalising her.
This is the crucial difference be-tween Williams outburst and other similar incidents: I think she was right, at least to an extent, about the umpire. On the coaching violation it is true that getting “coached” via hand signals or speaking during the match is against the rules, Williams coach also admits that he was doing that. What is also true however is that most tennis players and coaches do this but are rarely penalised for it. Whilst it’s difficult to brand this as sexism given that Williams’ opponent was of course also a woman, I really question whether the umpire would have done the same had Roger Federer exchanged glances with his coach. Whilst I think Serena overreacted, stating “I don’t cheat, I’d rather lose,” you can understand her frustration at being penalised for such a small infraction. Further to this, rather than warning Williams either informally or officially, Carlos Ramos kept on giving her penalties, which did little to help proceedings. Whilst Williams was clearly seething and loudly confronting the umpire, calling him a thief is hardly the worst insult ever heard on a tennis court and the deduction of a full game from Williams score seems disproportionate.
I have seen and several players (Andy Roddick and James Blake to name two) have come out to say that male players have said far worse and got off lightly. Tennis’ history isn’t free from sexism either, it has been present in the game for a long time. The tennis world seems divided over Williams’ outburst but for these male players and for tennis greats like Billie Jean-King (whom praised Williams for calling out the double standard regarding gender), the USTA (United States Tennis Association) and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) itself to come out in support of Williams shows that this isn’t a case of a sore loser using the gender card as a cover for their own behaviour. Instead, in my view at least, this was an elite athlete who under extreme pressure and on the brink of history reacted loudly to some harsh and possibly misguided or even sexist officiating. Has she disgraced herself, her sport or her country? I really don’t think so.
I think that tennis is rife with sexism. But, to say that Serena Williams was a victim of sexism in the 2018 US Open final is ridiculous. I realise that as a white, middle-class man I cannot recognise the levels of discrimination women are subjected to on a daily basis, yet I still believe that Williams’ actions were not only unjustified, but a disgrace to the sport. I felt sorry for Naomi Osaka, as the best night of her life was overshadowed by Williams’ inability to accept that she was being outplayed.
To show that Carlos Ramos was, in all likelihood, not motivated by sexism in his punishment of Williams, it is best to examine her code violations. For the non-tennis fans, tennis has a simple formal punishment system. The first code violation is a warning, second is a point penalty, the third is a game penalty and the fourth sees the player forfeit the match. Take Williams’ first violation for which she received a warning for coaching, which is prohibited in grand slam matches. Her coach Mouratoglou admitted after the match that he was coaching her. It was a clear warning, if harsh given the common nature of the crime.
However, Williams believed Ramos was calling her a cheat and demanded he apologise. Such remonstrating with the umpire is fairly commonplace in tennis and so far, Williams had not really crossed a line, but instead her coach. The second code violation: racquet abuse. In tennis you can throw your racquet but not break it, as Williams did. As a second violation it equalled a point penalty. So far, no controversy. It was only after Osaka broke Williams to lead 4-3 in the second set that it kicked off.
Clearly furious at her own performance and her hopes of claiming a record 24th slam, slipping away, she lashed out at the umpire: “You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology.” Despite this outburst, Ramos remained calm; he made no attempt to provoke Williams. That was until Williams crossed the line totally. “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.” By calling Ramos a “liar” and a “thief” Williams had insinuated that he had cheated, a statement against his character. The International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) rules describe ver-bal abuse as “a statement about an official…that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise.” Williams, in calling Ramos a “liar” /“thief” committed verbal abuse and was rightfully given a code violation. That this was her third and therefore incurred a game penalty is irrelevant, for Williams broke the rules and was rightfully punished.
The incredible thing is that Williams has form for this. In the 2009 US Open Williams launched abuse at a line judge for calling a foot fault. In this tirade it is alleged that Williams threatened the person of the line judge. At match point down, she was dis-qualified and given a suspended ban. Two years on, Williams trailed Sam Stosur and was punished for interference after she called out mid-point. Williams responded by threatening the umpire: “If you ever see me down the hall-way look the other way. You’re out of control. “This remark is strikingly similar to her threat to Ramos that he would never umpire her matches again.
Also, these incidents occurred when Williams was losing or her title hopes were slipping. This suggests that her problem is an inability to accept that sometimes she is just outplayed. Williams’ attitude also cannot be ignored. Billie-Jean King was correct to say that when men get worked up they are viewed as passionate while women are seen as hysterical. However, I viewed her as aggressive. Williams is 5ft 9, a top athlete and build like a brickhouse; Ramos is quite a slight man. Having Williams treat him in this manner can only have been intimidating. It is incredible that some people are seeing Williams as the victim. The true victims? Ramos and Osaka.
In contrast, Alize Cornet was given a code violation for changing her shirt on court. While Cornet had her top off for seconds, Djokovic was able to sit shirtless for minutes. A blatant case of sexism, yet it is overshadowed by Williams’ desire to make it all about her. Instead of focusing on non-issues like Williams’, tennis should look to those like Cornet’s to be truly progressive. Williams was not angered that Ramos made a call against her as a woman, she was furious he had dared to call against Serena Williams.