By Jacob Jaffa
Serena Williams’ outburst during the US Open final a few weeks ago cost her a game, and the match, against Naomi Osaka. However, it was not the story of Osaka, the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam, overcoming the American powerhouse, or even of Williams’ conduct, that made the headlines.
Instead it was the claim Williams made to the press that the game penalty she received for her third code violation, calling umpire Carlos Ramos a ‘liar’ over a point penalty given for racquet abuse was the result of sexism.
I abhor sexism, but I could not care less about this, primarily because there is no sexism in this case. The only part of it I do in fact care about is the fact that Williams’ unnecessary outburst and politicisation of the game robbed Osaka of the spotlight and acclaim of which she was more than worthy. In days after the match the sports pages should have been full of a celebration of the wonderful tennis we saw over the course of the final match, particularly from Osaka. However, the front page is where this story has ended up, with Williams as its predominant character. This is ridiculous.
First, Williams is not the one we should be talking about. The real story here is that of young rising star Naomi Osaka who, at the age of 20, has beaten perhaps the greatest sportswoman ever. While it was sadly clear that Williams, who is almost 37 and has just returned from 4 months absence, was a step slower than she once was, it is still a phenomenal achievement for the young Osaka. I did not watch the entire match but from what I saw of it Osaka played with a poise and grace not often seen in a relatively inexperienced player, especially against Williams. I feel so bad for Osaka having the memory of her first Grand Slam sullied by politics. Whoever was booing as she received her trophy should be ashamed.
Secondly, the scandal disinterest me because it’s not Williams’ first outburst. For example, at the 2009 US Open she was given a default for abusing a line judge against Kim Clijsters, which might be ground for a sexism claim if it weren’t that both the line judge and umpire were female and that there is still dispute over was, who claimed that said, with Williams accused of threatening the judge.
Considering this it’s unsurprising that Williams could have disliked the legitimate calls that Ramos made, and it’s not beyond her to abuse officials. In fairness it’s understandable. Tennis is a high-pressure environment and if an athlete feels they have been cheated one can see why a player like Williams, who was losing and under the immense pressure of her reputation and of her comeback, would be angry, whether or not Ramos’ calls were fair
Thirdly the sexism claim must be addressed. The idea that umpires are sexist is an inconsistent one. A comparable situation is the disqualification of John McEnroe in his fourth-round match of the 1990 Australian Open. Most code violations are penalised in three stages. The first violation receives a warning, the second a point penalty and the third anything from a game penalty to a default. In McEnroe’s case the American legend was given a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct as he was deemed to have intimidated a line judge. A point penalty for racquet abuse followed then a default for verbal abuse due to his swearing at the umpire.
To understand the relevance of this one must look at the law concerning verbal abuse. While profanity obviously counts, it also states that abuse includes implying an umpires’ dishonesty. The latter two offences were directly comparable to McEnroe as Williams was given her point and game penalty for the same faults (calling Ramos a ‘liar’ could be said to imply dishonesty). Furthermore, when one considers that her first offence, where she received illegal coaching, is just as serious as unsportsmanlike conduct, it’s clear that the laws were enforced equally, if not a little in Williams’ favour, two decades apart. The fact that Williams claimed that she did not receive coaching is irrelevant considering her coach’s later admission that he did attempt to coach her illegally from the stands and the fact that an umpire cannot reverse a call based on an athlete’s word.
Finally, the accusation that Ramos treats men and women unequally is unfounded. If you thought his calls on Williams were harsh then remember he has been criticised by Nadal, Murray and Djokovic within two years alone for similar harshness. He is recognised as one of the best, but least forgiving umpires and renowned as a stickler for the rules. Even if Williams believed she had been treated unfairly it’s clear Ramos is not sexist as he has heavily penalised the game’s male stars. If she had any knowledge of the umpire I only wonder why she gave him any excuse to penalise, especially when Osaka did not.
Overall, this is a non-story. Williams tried to justify behaviour unbecoming of her status as one of the greats with a ludicrous claim of sexism and in doing so sadly stole the spotlight from the real story here. Full credit to Naomi Osaka for her performance and I hope to see her lift many more Grand Slam trophies