As Serena Williams faced the media in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night, every point she attempted to drive home made complete sense.
- It was unfair for the chair umpire to take away a point, and then a game, toward the end of her eventual loss to 2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
- Men have long gotten away with abusing chair and line umpires in tennis.
- She has been an advocate for securing equal rights for female players on tour, and what happened to her during Saturday’s final might eventually change the way female tennis players are treated.
It’s easy to agree with the postmatch message.
But it was also difficult to embrace the way that message was delivered during the course of her two-set defeat to Osaka, the emerging star of Haitian and Japanese descent who won her first Grand Slam title.
What Williams did on center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night was not a good look for her.
The best player in the game not long after she turned pro in 1995, Williams has earned the right to vent over a call she felt was undeserved. On the other hand, there are consequences and repercussions for players who continue to cross over the “line in the sand” set by officials.
And Williams, who turns 37 in a few weeks, knows she can’t explain away her outburst by placing her chips on the fact that men do it too. And does she really want to establish the standard for young female tennis players by using the behavior of bratty boys as an example?
At times, some of the male players on tour have acted like jerks.
Novak Djokovic, who won the 2018 US Open on Sunday, had to issue a video apology after an aggressive gesture startled a ball boy working the championship match of the 2015 Miami Open.
Nick Kyrgios, from Australia, has earned his bad-boy reputation berating officials, smashing rackets and even appearing to cheat the game by seemingly tanking matches.
And we’ve all heard about or seen the childish behavior demonstrated by John McEnroe throughout his 16-year career. In 1990, McEnroe was actually defaulted out in the fourth round of the Australian Open for a prolonged tantrum that was mild by his standards, explaining years later, “I suppose that even though I don’t feel like I should have been defaulted, say, in that particular match, I’m sure there were a few others where I probably deserved to be.”
But when it comes to tirades, even Williams doesn’t get a pass. Her complaints during the 2004 US Open were justified, with four horrible calls going against her in crucial moments during a quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati.
Five years later, in the semifinals of the 2009 US Open, Williams held up her racket in a menacing manner as she walked toward the lineswoman who called her for a foot fault. Williams threatened to “shove this ball down your (expletive deleted) throat.” The code violation against Williams earned her a point penalty, which ended the match against Kim Clijsters since she was already down match point.
So players of every gender in every sport sometimes lose it when calls go against them.
Unfortunately, male athletes in tennis are judged by a different criteria from their female counterparts. Their actions are embraced as passion, and often applauded.
Williams and the other women on tour — especially women of color — have to be twice as good and half as mad to succeed. It’s a criteria they have to navigate in tennis, and in life.
Women have to work harder because their work often falls under more scrutiny. That’s a point that’s driven home with me even more as I listen to the horror stories my daughter often shares with me as she navigates her professional career. It’s her experience that indifferent work from male colleagues gets ignored, while minor missteps by female workers are often treated at DEFCON levels.
Williams lost her cool. We get it.
And officials are often biased and occasionally hold grudges against athletes they don’t like (former NBA official Joey Crawford once ejected Tim Duncan for laughing as the San Antonio Spurs forward sat on the bench. Crawford was fined $100,000).
There’s no proof that chair umpire Carlos Ramos had any bias against Williams. But it happens.
Let’s be clear here: The code violation for coaching that set off the entire series of events should have never been called by Ramos. That led to a second code violation, and a point deduction, when Williams smashed a racket after collapsing in a crucial fifth game of the second set (after two double faults hurt her chance to take a 4-1 lead).
The third violation, which cost her a game, came after she continued to argue and called Ramos a “thief.”
A code violation for calling someone a name? Tennis officials have been called worse.
Williams admitted afterward that she had never had a problem with Ramos, who has a reputation in tennis of being strict. Ramos has drawn the ire of Rafael Nadal (issued two warnings for slow play during the 2017 French Open), Andy Murray (issued a code violation during the 2016 Olympics) and Venus Williams (he accused her of receiving coaching during a 2016 French Open match).
Ramos owns what’s known in tennis as a “gold badge,” which is supposed to signify the highest achievement among tennis officials. But an umpire at the top of his craft should have, at a crucial moment of a Grand Slam final, recognized the passion that Williams demonstrated after the first code violation.
And, like solid officials have done in every sport when confronted by great athletes expressing themselves in the heat of the moment, Ramos should have looked away and ignored her continued complaints.
For anyone who wants to offer a defense to Ramos — there is none. Williams, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles and one win away from solidifying her status as the greatest women’s player in history, is the player everyone came to see.
Had the meltdown by Williams happened at, say, the Western & Southern Open last month or a tournament other than a major, this story might have lasted a single news cycle.
The setting, a major tournament, is the reason that this one will have legs and will likely stick with her long after her Hall of Fame career ends.
If you have a massive error in judgment when the stakes are high, the results are often monumental. Consider where the Golden State Warriors would be right now, possibly pursuing their fifth straight NBA title, if Draymond Green hadn’t hit LeBron James in the groin, which led to his suspension in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals — a selfish act that contributed to the Cleveland Cavaliers coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title.
Williams is no Draymond Green.
Williams is tennis royalty, with a maternal storyline as she returned to greatness after the birth of her daughter becoming a dream canvas for Madison Avenue advertisers who delivered television commercial classics that aired repeatedly during the US Open. Williams is a role model to young players of color, including Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, who were inspired by the Williams sisters’ rise to tennis dominance via the unconventional route of Compton, California. And she is a motivator to young mothers who face the challenges of returning to a normal life after a difficult childbirth.
Parents raising children of color in rough environments (or in any environment) appreciate the lessons the Williams sisters learned from their father, Richard, who prepared his girls for the obstacles they would face because of the color of their skin. It was often a tough love approach from Richard Williams, who wanted his daughters to be well-equipped to clear the high hurdles and navigate the difficult challenges they would face being black girls attempting to elbow their way into a sport that had been, up to that point, mostly white.
Both Williams sisters, and especially Serena, demonstrated a strength and toughness to overcome insurmountable odds on many occasions throughout her career. Want proof? Just check out tape from the 2003 semifinals of the Australian Open, when Serena dropped the first set and came back from being down 5-1 in the third set to win; or video of the 2005 Australian Open semifinals, when Williams lost the first set and saved three match points in a comeback win that solidified her ownership over Maria Sharapova.
The lesson: You never turn away from a Serena Williams match, no matter how dire her circumstance appears to be.
Did Williams have a chance to come back against Osaka?
We never had a chance to find out Saturday, as she quickly unraveled after Ramos issued his first code violation.
Suddenly, the layers that made Williams a champion, a warrior and a role model were slowly stripped away to reveal an athlete who was vulnerable and infuriated.
Asked on Saturday whether she felt like she could have come back against Osaka, a player against whom Williams has failed to win a set in two matches, Williams responded:
“I always fight to the end.”
Williams, unfortunately, took herself out of the fight for the 2018 US Open title.
You can say Williams was a victim Saturday of sexism or racism. Both were among the hot takes that emerged after her loss. And both might carry some truth.
The bigger truth is it’s likely there will never be a moment in Williams’ career where she takes the court against Osaka and walks away thinking she’s the superior player.
Williams can still win majors. I expect Williams to win majors.
But to win the fight, you have to be in the battle.
At the end against Osaka, Williams was barely in the battle.
As we place blame on who’s responsible, let’s not forget to include the one person who failed to maintain composure at a crucial moment in a pivotal match.
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