Serena Williams’ meltdown during the women’s final at the US Open certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons, causing acres of ink and opinion.
The nub of the matter is that this is not the first time Serena has resorted to on-court rantings to try to change the course of a match when the momentum has swung away from her, and all have resulted in code violations and/or fines.
Whether she does this on purpose, or these incidents arise out of the tensions she is feeling, we will never know, but the fact is that, on this occasion, she prevented a young player from enjoying her moment in the sun after playing an incredible match against the 23-times Grand Slam champion, and she also destroyed it for the spectators in the stadium, as well as the worldwide television audience.
It smacked of sour grapes and of being a sore loser.
She completely had the right message about women's inequality, but it wasn't the right time to bring it up Martina Navratilova
“Had I behaved like that on a tennis court, I would have expected to get everything that happened to Serena,” said Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles including a record 9 Wimbledon titles, and has been a longtime advocate for equality in the sport.
“It should’ve ended right there with the point warning, but Serena just couldn’t let it go.”
She added: “She completely had the right message about women’s inequality, but it wasn’t the right time to bring it up.”
Serena imploded after Umpire Carlos Ramos issued her a warning about receiving illegal coaching, and then penalised her twice later in the second set, when she threw down her racket and then after she called him a liar and a thief.
Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan, showed amazing poise amid the disarray, and overpowered her childhood hero with her racket to claim her victory, her first Grand Slam title, but there was no joy in it and it will be forever tarnished by this unpleasant set of circumstances.
On the biggest stage in tennis and her first Grand Slam final, Osaka was all about confidence and composure during the match itself, but she could not stop crying during the shortened trophy presentation, clearly distressed over the whole ugly business.
In damage control, Williams attempted to defuse the awkwardness, but it was too late to salvage things.
She did comfort Osaka, who was born in Japan but has more New York in her than her idol, having lived in Elmont, Long Island for six years of her childhood, and yet the crowd viewed her as the enemy and booed.
“She played well,’’ acknowledged an emotional Williams. “This is her first Grand Slam. I know you guys were rooting. I was rooting too. We’ll get through it. Give credit where it’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. No more booing.’’
Osaka deserved celebration and got abuse, and then the whole world waded in with their diverse opinion of Serena’s antics as the controversy morphed into an equal rights and sexism issue.
Serena claimed the penalties were more harsh than those imposed on men for committing the same offence.
John McEnroe, one of the game’s most tempestuous characters in his playing days, said the sport must find a way to allow players to express feelings and inject their personality into the game while adhering to the rules, adding that Ramos should not have given Williams a violation for breaking her racket but should have warned her early on about what would happen if she did not move on.
“I’ve said far worse,” McEnroe, a seven-times Grand Slam singles winner, said on ESPN. “She’s right about the guys being held to a different standard, there’s no question.”
Serena told the press after the match: “I’m here fighting for women’s rights, and for women’s equality, and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark.
“He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women,” adding: “Like Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine.”
In point of fact, Alizé Cornet did not receive a fine and that incident prompted an apology from the USTA as removing her shirt on court did not contravene any Grand Slam or WTA rule.
Serena broke the rules, plain and simple, and certain officials are more strict than others, in any sport.
Perhaps she should have known this particular chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, is stricter than most and acted accordingly.
At the last, Williams was fined $17,000 for the three code violations, but it is not the first time that she has been involved in bad tempered exchanges with officialdom.
In 2004 she lost her quarter-final match to Jennifer Capriati after being upset by several line calls resulting in the removal of umpire Mariana Alves from officiating for the rest of the tournament.
At the US Open in 2009 she was fined and put on two years’ probation for an expletive-laced outburst at a line judge, who called a foot fault against her, during her semi-final against Kim Clijsters.
In 2011, Serena was down and out against Samantha Stosur in the US Open final and was docked a point for hindering play resulting in her unleashing on the umpire. She was not penalised further after losing the match.
Some spectators said this latest outburst was evidence of Williams being a bad loser because she was trailing the match at the time, while others said the umpire did his job and each violation was a correct call in light of the circumstances. Others supported her later stance.
“I don’t cheat to win!” she said about the coaching violation. “I’d rather lose… I’m just letting you know!
“You owe me an apology. I have NEVER cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what is right and I have NEVER cheated.”
Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou later admitted he was making hand gestures, but insisted it was not uncommon, while Billie Jean King chimed into the debate to highlight double standards in the game.
“Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. It isn’t, and as a result, a player was penalised for the actions of her coach. This should not happen,” King said on Twitter.
“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”
The fact is that coaching is not allowed at the Grand Slams, or on the ATP Tour, although the WTA allows on-court coaching at their events and the jury, frankly, is mostly out on that still after nine years of experimentation.
Having made her point that she had not received the coaching, Serena should have let the matter drop but instead chose to use it to blow up the occasion and would not let it go, hence the subsequent code violations.
That she was treated differently than a male player is a matter of conjecture, especially since the US Open was the first Grand Slam tournament to pay women equal prize money, starting back in 1973, decades before the other three majors did.
If the US Open does not penalise male and female players equally, then probably no one can.
Sue Barker says Williams was wrong with the way she reacted but urged the sport’s governing bodies to learn from the incident.
The former French Open champion told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek programme: “As far as the rant goes, I think the umpire was following the rules by the book, and so that is harsh.
“But Serena in some ways has a point in the fact that I’ve sat court-side watching the men ranting at umpires and [they] haven’t been given a violation. Both have a point.
“Serena is saying the male players can say what they like to an umpire. Also, earlier in the tournament we saw Alizé Cornet being given a code violation for changing her shirt on-court. Then, in the same tournament, Mohamed Lahyani gets off the umpires’ chair to talk to Nick Kyrgios and persuade him not to give up on a match.
“So I think they have to look at the rules of what is allowed and what isn’t, because I just think he was following the rules absolutely by the book, but sometimes the book has to be re-written – you can’t have one rule for some players, and some umpires don’t adhere to it and allow players to get away with things.
“I think they just have to be fair to the players. Tennis was the loser.
“I wouldn’t want to see it, but if it’s coming to things like this, it’s ruining the game – if they can’t adhere to the rules, then they’ll have to allow the coaching.
“I think the WTA, the ATP and the ITF have to get together. It can’t be a grey area any more, and maybe there has to be a supervisor that comes on to have the final say, before you give a game away.”
This publication has long advocated the governing bodies coming together to sing from the same hymn sheet as regards the on-court rules of the game for the sake of players and spectators alike.
Former US Open champion Andy Roddick tweeted that it was the “worst refereeing I’ve ever seen ……the worst !!!” but later retracted somewhat by tweeting: “Emotional first take by me. common sense should’ve prevailed in my opinion. He’s within his power to make that call. I’ve seen an umpire borderline coach a player up, and another dock a game for being called a thief in same tourney. There needs to be some continuity in the future.”
Former US Open quarter-finalist Mardy Fish came out in defence of Williams, tweeting: “She wasn’t even looking. Believe what you want. What a wild US Open for the Ref’s. Two ridiculous calls today. I can promise you, that’s not coaching, racquet abuse no doubt, but the verbal abuse??? It’s the US Open Final!!!”
Support for Williams was not universal, though, with some saying the 23-time Grand Slam winner was simply in the wrong.
Andrew Castle said the incident was reminiscent of Williams’ meltdown at the same tournament in 2009: “Not sure how any unbiased observer who knows the rules and history of tennis can look at what happened and defend Serena,” he tweeted.
“Memories of [Kim] Clijsters match. You just can’t act like that I’m afraid. #Serena now claiming that men do this. More nonsense. Is she claiming sexism? This is not right.”
British No 4 Liam Broady said he was “absolutely gutted” for Osaka, saying she had her moment “snatched away from her”.
“I think incredibly strong from the umpire to not be intimidated by a GOAT (greatest of all time) of the game and hand out the game penalty even so? You shouldn’t talk to anybody in this way whether they’re an umpire or person on the street.”
Richard Ings, a former rules and competition chief for the ATP, defended Ramos and called on the sport’s governing bodies to support him.
“When coaches and players come out and threaten the employment of umpires then it falls to the governing bodies to defend those officials just doing their job,” he tweeted. “Carlos Ramos was doing his job. And doing it well in my extremely experienced opinion.”
In a statement the US Open said the chair umpire’s decision was final.
Despite the controversy there were many messages of support for Osaka, who became the first Japanese Grand Slam winner.
2017 men’s finalist Kevin Anderson urged Osaka to feel proud “for competing against someone you (and the rest of us) admire so much to win your first slam. You’re the real deal!” he tweeted.
As for the poor Ramos, he went to ground having followed the rule book.
Ings, also a former professional chair umpire, revealed the Portuguese official was paid the princely sum of $633 for taking charge of the Osaka-Williams encounter, just a shade more than the $548 that Serena earned every second she was on court while losing 6-2 6-4.
As well as enough cash to perhaps buy himself a new pair of sunglasses and a hat as he sought to stay incognito over the days after the incident, Ramos also received a mountain of public ridicule for his efforts.
Ings, who once issued a warning, point penalty and a game penalty against McEnroe at the 1987 US Open for obscenities directed at the umpire, felt it was Williams who needed to apologise.
“We should not let her record, as glowing as it is, overshadow the fact that on this day, in this match Williams was wrong,” Ings wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.
“The decisions made by Ramos had nothing to do with sexism or racism. They had everything to do with observing clear breaches of the Grand Slam Code of Conduct and then having the courage to call them without fear or favour.”
The ITF released a statement supporting this view: “Carlos Ramos is one of the most experienced and respected umpires in tennis. Mr. Ramos’ decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were re-affirmed by the US Open’s decision to fine Serena Williams for the three offences.
“It is understandable that this high profile and regrettable incident should provoke debate.
“At the same time, it is important to remember that Mr. Ramos undertook his duties as an official according to the relevant rule book and acted at all times with professionalism and integrity.”
Meanwhile, the WTA is calling for equal treatment of all players and coaching to be allowed across the sport.
“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night,” CEO Steve Simon said in a statement.
“We also think the issue of coaching needs to be addressed and should be allowed across the sport. The WTA supports coaching through its on-court coaching rule but further review is needed.”
Perhaps they could look at an umpire’s pay packet at the same time, and address the incredible disparity between player earnings and all those who work and support the sport at all levels of the game.
Tennis is an individual sport in which only the player gets to determine what happens on the court, having to work out by themselves how to beat the opponent.
Players benefit from coaching and day-to-day training sessions, but at Grand Slam events, help from the sidelines is strictly prohibited during warm-ups and matches (although this is currently under trial in the juniors events).
What qualifies as coaching obviously is a matter of interpretation by the umpire and includes explicit instructions or even coded gestures, as was the case with Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who was recorded on camera making a movement with his hands, probably a signal for Williams to play closer to the net, which Ramos spotted.
“I am honest,” he told ESPN after the match against Osaka. “I was coaching. Sascha [Bajin, Osaka’s coach] was coaching every point too. Everyone is doing it 100 percent of the time.”
That well may be the case but they were not being caught infringing the rules and if Serena is to have any beef over this whole shabby affair, it should be with her coach, who cost her a record-equalling Grand Slam title.
Australian Margaret Court, whose tally of 24 Grand Slam singles titles she is chasing, had little sympathy for the American.
“We always had to go by the rules,” Court, who dominated tennis during the 1960s and early 1970s, said in The Australian. “It’s sad for the sport when a player tries to become bigger than the rules.”
The majority view, however, is that the writing was already on the wall and it was always going to be Osaka’s title because of the way the 20-year was out-playing Serena.
At 36, going on 37, perhaps it is time for Serena to look deep within herself and rue that she shattered the new US Open champion’s day, and probably her idyllic dreams of her as well.
So far, we have heard no apology from Serena, just on-going rhetoric on an old refrain, window dressing on a flaw of her imperfect character.