By: Elizabeth Klein
Last weekend saw one of the most controversial U.S. Open finals to date in a match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka that won the latter her first Grand Slam title. However, Osaka’s victory was overshadowed by an incident on the court that has many people talking about the double standards involved not only in tennis, but in sports as a whole.
It started off innocently enough. Osaka, a 20-year-old tennis player who was generally expected to lose, was finally playing against her idol in a Grand Slam Final. Everyone believed that Williams would be walking away with her 24th Grand Slam title; however, that notion was turned upside down when Osaka beat Williams in the first set, 6-2.
Soon after, things took a turn for the worse. Near the beginning of the second set, Carlos Ramos, the umpire presiding over the match, called a code violation for coaching. He had seen Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making hand signals in the stands that Ramos believed were coaching instructions. As there was no penalty attached to the announcement, Ramos’s call was essentially a formal warning. But accusing one of the greatest tennis players in the world of cheating in front of the entire world is no small issue, and Williams was reasonably upset. She immediately confronted the umpire, asserting that she did not cheat. “I don’t cheat to win,” she stated. “I’d rather lose.” The two continued the conversation during the next changeover, and when Williams again held that she didn’t cheat, Ramos answered, “I know that.” Williams thanked him and returned to the court.
Everything seemed settled, but when Williams threw her racket to the ground in frustration after Osaka bested her during Williams’s serve, tensions broke out once again. Ramos called a code violation for racket abuse and took a point from Williams. The rules are clear: throw your racket, lose a point. However, when it was Osaka’s serve, Williams walked to the deuce side instead instead of the ad side of the court, apparently believing the score was at 0-0. When she was told it was 0-15, she consulted Ramos once again, calling his announcement a “warning.” Ramos said something back to Williams which likely related to his first announcement of a code violation, as the tennis player replied, “I didn’t get coaching!” After demanding an apology from Ramos (and not receiving one), the argument seemed to end with Williams asserting that Ramos would never umpire for her matches again. During the next changeover, Williams continued the argument, claiming that the umpire had attacked her character and called him a thief for stealing a point from her. Ramos then issued a code violation for verbal abuse and took a game from Williams. The situation completely devolved from there. Williams called over the referees, but they would not reverse the ruling. Williams lost a game and Osaka beat her in the set, winning the match overall and her first Grand Slam title. But her win was clouded by the heated events sparked by the umpire who couldn’t handle a woman standing up for herself. Now, the media is labelling the incident as a “meltdown” on Williams’s part. The Telegraph called it “an extraordinary rant.” The New York Post called her a “sore loser.”
Obviously, the standard should be the same for female and white male athletes. Break the rules, face the consequences; poor behavior on the court should not be permissible for either women or white men. As Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, put it: “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with.” She’s not wrong. But how often do white men get away with it? Almost every time they throw a tantrum on the court, it’s excused. It seems that umpires are only strict about their jobs when it’s a woman, especially a black woman, on the court. And even then, Ramos went too far. He easily could’ve given Williams an informal warning by pulling her aside and telling her coach to stop giving hand signals. Instead, he chose to broadcast to the entire audience—including those at the game and watching from TV and later on the Internet—that he believed Serena Williams was a cheater. Then he got upset when she called him a thief.
Throwing her racket was a violation of the rules, yes. But when white men contest the rules, they’re rationalizing; when women do it, they’re hysterical. Women in sports, especially black women, cannot afford to be anything but polite and unassuming; otherwise, they’re labelled as emotional sore losers that need to control their temper. The standards are set so high for women, especially women of color, that even one of the greatest athletes in the world isn’t allowed to defend herself from attacks on her character without facing the scrutiny and judgement of the entire world. For how much longer will Serena Williams have to prove herself? Do you have to be a 24-time Grand Slam winner to earn the recognition and praise you’ve been working toward your whole life? Is she just one title away from being treated with the respect and honor that white men half as good as her are given unconditionally?
This was neither a meltdown nor a tantrum; Williams wasn’t acting like a sore loser, nor was she stepping over the line. She has dealt with sexism and racism her entire career, from being tested for drugs four times more than her peers to not being allowed to play in a postpartum catsuit that would prevent the same blood clots that almost killed her during childbirth. Yet whenever she faces this type of discrimination, she responds with unmatched class and poise. At the U.S. Open, she responded the way most people would after having their character attacked. But that wasn’t good enough. The message here is obvious: Black women don’t get second chances. They don’t get to mess up, and they don’t get warnings. Carlos Ramos reinforced this idea by ruining what should’ve been a celebrated victory for Naomi Osaka with a twisted attempt to put Serena Williams in her place. Thankfully, she’s not backing down.
“The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman,” said Williams in a press conference after the match. “They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”