First played in 1881, the United States Open Tennis Championships, or the US Opens, remain as one of the primary institutions for tennis fans, and especially players, all over the world. With 3.1 million watching the most recent event on ESPN, any up-and-coming tennis player would, unsurprisingly, jump with joy at the prospects of participating in the event, much less face if against arguably the most influential and talented players since Billie Jean King: Serena Williams.
Such seems the case for Naomi Osaka, the 20 year-old victor of the 2018 US Open Women’s Singles; unfortunately, this did not occur, as most of the media attention focused on the controversy around Williams’ loss, wherein Williams, after a dispute with the umpire over alleged signs from her coach, smashed her racket and argued with the umpire, acquired three code violations, losing Williams the game; however, the problem with this attention seems as if most all stories on the topic paint Williams as unequivocally in the right and umpire Carlos Ramos in the wrong. As a result, the key nuances of this issue end up over looked.
To start, yes, Ramos does possess a reputation as a stickler for violations; examples of this exist in the French Open for 2016 and 2017, the 2016 Summer Olympics, and the recent US Open; however, contrary to Williams’ statement about Ramos, claiming ”he’s never taken a game from a man,” Ramos, in all three events mentioned above, penalized males players for actions not unlike her own. In the case of the French Opens, in 2016 Ramos coded Australian player Nick Kyrgios after he shouted at a towel boy, a violation after which Kyrgios continued to clash with Ramos; though he won the match against Marco Cecchinato, Kyrgios did not win the overall Open. Similarly for the Olympics, British player Andy Murray earned a code violation for mocking the umpiring as “stupid,” an insult comparable to Williams calling Ramos a thief.
None of this places a shining halo over the head of Ramos. Regarding the initial violation over signals from Serena’s coach, the fact that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to using handsigns should remain in the back of the minds of those arguing in defense of Serena. With that said, considering he also said rules against coaching do not always end up enforced leads one to the conclusion that Ramos, rather than immediately dole out a penalty, could instead give Williams a more amiable warning. In addition, the $17,000 dollar fine directed towards Serena, while fairly miniscule when compared to her alleged $1.85 million prize money as runner-up, seems rather excessive considering $10,000 serves as compensation for “verbal abuse.”
Just as Ramos does not merit the halo, Williams does not deserve a tail on her backside. The weekend after the Open, Australian cartoonist Mark Knight came under fire for portraying Williams as angry with “grotesquely racist features,” while portraying Osaka as a calm, white, blonde woman (Osaka identifies as Haitian-Japanese-American.). Not much needs saying regarding the moral failings of the image. Why exactly Williams falls into the wrong category does need saying though, and two reasons exist which explain why.
As a 23-year veteran of the sport, it would stand to reason that the professional conduct Williams displays during a match would not actually present an issue, but her outburst proves otherwise. Completely disregarding Ramos for a moment, consider the fact that she smashed her racket; to a viewer ignorant of tennis conduct, this may seem like the equivalent of a child throwing a temper tantrum. A harsh sentiment? Perhaps, but the precedent for this kind of behavior does exist. During the 2009 US Open, Williams slammed her racket after losing the initial set against Belgian player Kim Clijsters; this resulted in a warning from the coach. Later on when an improper serve resulted in two points for Clijsters, Williams apparently threatened to “take the ball and shove it” down the throat of the lineswoman.
The second and more pressing reason Williams failed regards to the message this sends. Countless amounts of praise and scorn for Williams occurs with each passing day; regardless of that, no denial about her position as a role model for black women, a demographic once almost entirely ignored in tennis, exists within the cultural landscape, and her work certainly seems to produce more minorities in sports. So one would imagine that when Serena loses the US Open to the first female Japanese player to ever win a US Open, she would view her loss as an opportunity to empower young women of Asian descent to try their hands at this or any sport. Unfortunately, Osaka and her historic victory ended up overshadowed by the controversy.