James Gill considers how her actions overshadow a fantastic win for Naomi Osaka in New York and aid distraction from genuine gender inequality issues in sport
Serena Williams has suffered many times throughout her career from racist and sexist remarks. The American tennis player, who has won 23 singles Grand Slams, has arguably had the greatest impact on the female game alongside others such as Billie Jean King. However her recent remarks about sexism after being sanctioned during the US Open Final were incredibly damaging for her credibility and women’s tennis as a whole.
Williams was ultimately fined $17,000 for three separate violations during the final which she lost to Noami Osaka. The first violation came after the umpire Carlos Ramos judged a gesture from Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou to be coaching. Coaching within the context of a Grand Slam refers to the player’s coach giving information through words or hand gestures during the warm up or the game itself. This is prohibited and if the umpire notices this the player will be penalised.
It is up to the umpires judgement what qualifies as coaching and Ramos decided a hand gesture was enough to have potentially given Williams an unfair advantage. This is something she denies, telling the umpire during the game she would “never cheat to win and would rather lose”. Mouratoglou came out and said in an interview that he “was coaching but I don’t think she looked at me. Everybody does it.”
This argument doesn’t hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. The umpire has to do his best to try and monitor as much as possible and it often seems that coaching slips through the cracks and goes unseen. It is clearly against the rules, no matter how inconsistently people are reprimanded for it. Earlier in the Open tournament Nick Krygios was also accused of coaching. Mohamed Lahyani, the umpire in that game, handled the rule break differently and went to go talk to Krygios.
The second code violation came in the second set with the score at 3-2. This time it was for racquet abuse leading to her being docked a point. Williams became incredibly angry at the penalty saying to Ramos: “You owe me an apology, I have never cheated in my life.” The game continued briefly but at the changeover, with the score 4-3 to Osaka, she added: “You will never ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live.”
Ramos, an umpire with a reputation for not being intimidated by players, has taken charge of finals at all Grand Slams, as well as the Olympic Games. Both of the decisions he made were by the letter of the law. Whether or not the rules, specifically the one on coaching, should be changed to reflect how the modern game is played is a separate, equally necessary, discussion. Naturally the crowd in New York sided with Williams, and the atmosphere grew increasingly toxic as the game progressed.
Her remarks led to Ramos dishing out a third code violation, penalising her a game. Now Osaka was just one game away from victory at 5-3 up. Boos echoed around the stadium and Williams refused to continue, demanding to talk to the tournament referee. Eventually she finished the match and Osaka became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam at just 20 years of age.
Osaka’s special moment, beating her idol for a Grand Slam, was ruined by the disgraceful actions of the fans. They continued to boo and berate her during the ceremony. Rather than enjoying the moment she apologised for winning and covered her eyes to hide her tears. Williams, in her runners-up speech, told the crowd to respect Osaka for her achievement. A move that showed Williams’ great sportsmanship that was partially hidden by anger and frustration.
Were Ramos’ actions sexist? Objectively, looking at the three calls, there is nothing to suggest that these were anything other than the right decisions. If the umpire notices coaching, it is a violation. The two subsequent violations were incredibly clear, and if Ramos did not act upon them, there would have been a large backlash about him favouring Williams.
British number four Liam Broady said about the incident: “I think incredibly strong from the umpire to not be intimidated by a GOAT of the game and hand out the game penalty. You shouldn’t talk to anybody in this way whether they’re an umpire or person on the street.”
At last year’s US Open Italian player Fabio Fognini was fined $96,000 for verbal abuse he hurled at a female umpire. While this was far worse than Williams, it shows that this is an issue that is taken seriously, regardless of gender.
Williams making this a sexism issue, when it is clear to anyone familiar with the rules of the game that the umpire did nothing wrong, takes the light away from actual gender issues in the sport. A recent example of which is Alizé Cornet getting a violation for adjusting her top after accidentally putting it on back to front, while the male players can take their tops off without issue, a decision the US Open since condemned.
As an incredible role model for young women, Williams needs to be careful about directing her energy to the places where it can bring about the biggest positive change. Women’s tennis has come an awful long way with her in it, but it is events like these that cause small bumps on the tough road to sporting equality.