Briefing | opinion

DOUBLE FAULT: One of the greatest tennis players of all time made a terrible mistake, but everyone's making excuses

Getty ImagesThe conversation that became a global conversation.
  • Serena Williams looked set to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam but lost the US Open final to Japan’s Naomi Osaka.
  • The match itself has been overshadowed by what many argue is the sexism of umpire Carlos Ramos.
  • While he made no technical errors in his umpiring, his decision to declare three code violations against Williams has many claiming it was a clear case of sexism and double standards.
  • But Williams’ threatening behaviour towards the umpire was unnecessary and wrong.

You could forgive Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios for a wry laugh as he reads the acreage of opinions about what happened to Serena Williams at the US Open women’s final and how her punishment during the match is evidence of rampant sexism.

Few in the current history of tennis know more about what triggers the chair umpire than Kyrgios, whose code violations range from not changing a shirt fast enough to yelling at a towel boy (by the same umpire who oversaw the Williams game), swearing at himself and hitting a ball into the stands.

What happened to Serena is sexism. Exhibit A for the prosecution is a long list of male players who’ve done worse and got away with it.

Some have cited comments from John McEnroe as proof. The same US champ-turned-commentator who, in 1987 in a US Open fourth-round match, saw his escalating behaviour cost him a warning, then a point penalty, and then a game to lose the second set. Sounds familiar.

Three years later, he was defaulted out of an entire Grand Slam, the Australian Open, for code violations. Once again, it was in the fourth round – and he was the first player in 27 years to get booted, so enough with the “waddabout McEnroe?” argument.

The nature of sport is such that perceived inconsistencies in the umpiring are the fodder for Monday’s experts, although they’re normally held up as proof of bias against your team, rather than gender. But we’ll get to the umpire, Carlos Ramos, later.

Williams is unquestionably one of the greatest players of all time. She also has the mental toughness necessary in someone in elite sports, and undoubtedly has had to repeatedly confront racism and sexism in her stellar career. And even her supporters, outraged by this moment, acknowledge part of her success has been built on confrontational aggression.

But that doesn’t mean she’s always right.

Before going any deeper into the debate over what happened at the women’s final at the US Open, let’s just start with a quote from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, after the match.

“Well, I mean, I am honest, I was coaching,” he said.

“I don’t think she looked at me, that’s why she didn’t even think I was, but I was.”

It seems Williams did see, arguing he was simply giving her the thumbs up, a remarkable misunderstanding of his intentions given the close bonds of communication that normally form between a player and coach.

Coaching is not allowed during Grand Slam finals, so the chair umpire, Ramos — one of the game’s top officials — gave Williams a warning. (Incidentally, he’s also warned her sister, Venus, for coaching during a tournament – it’s one of his things.)

Mouratoglou argues Osaka’s coach was doing it too. It’s a bit like the doping argument. Everyone’s doing it, so I had to too.

Things escalated from there to the climax of Williams conceding a game as a code violation penalty. It was a horrible moment for tennis.

Billie Jean King, a legend of the sport, weighed in on double standards, saying on Twitter, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

After the match, Williams spoke about the umpiring in a fashion that must leave wide-eyed Australian footballers and coaches who’ve copped fines for bringing the game into disrepute, as she tore new strips off Ramos.

But there was a curious double standard in Billie Jean’s opening argument.

“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,” the champion says.

What, what? There are rules, the rules were enforced, but we don’t like the rules and this is why it’s all gone so horribly wrong?

There’s an argument that everyone does it. Fine, but change the rules, don’t complain when they’re enforced.

The penalty, by the way, was no more than a warning.

Another legend of the game was of a similar view. Chris Evert wants the rule changed, but says the warning was “fair”, but thinks greater leniency should have been applied when Williams delivered her spray at the umpire.

And let’s go to 23-time Grand Slam champion said to the umpire in repeated ongoing verbal clashes during the second set.

“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose,” Williams shouted.

Fair point. And admirable in an era when so many in professional sport have ultimately been unmasked as cheats.

But then Williams smashed racquet after losing a service game, copped a second violation and lost the first point of the next game.

Serena Williams at the US Open final, 2018. Picture: Getty Images

She’s not the first player to smash a racquet mid-match, but nor is she a pioneer in receiving a code violation.

Earlier this year, Nick Kyrgios was given one when he was down 3-0 in Davis Cup tie against Germany and smashed his racquet. Because he’d already been pinged once for whacking a ball into the stands, the one-point penalty essentially gave the German the second set (and ultimately, win).

So don’t argue Williams was being singled out.

But she remained rankled by the initial warning and continued, demanding he say sorry to her: “I don’t cheat. You need to make an announcement. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right. You owe me an apology.”

But the umpire didn’t accuse her of cheating. He called out her coach for doing something he later admitted he was doing, and issued a warning.

As the momentum continued to swing against Williams, she then threatened the umpire.

It sounded like a declaration to the world of who really rules women’s tennis.

“You will never ever ever be on another court of mine so as long as you live,” she told Ramos.

To be fair, Nadal has made the same threat and got away with it unpenalised.

But she kept going. And going calling him a liar and thief who “stole a point from me”.

She demanded his contrition: “When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. [his response unheard] Well don’t talk to me!”

Ramos responded with a third violation. Under the rules as they stand, she lost the next game.

Williams then lost two more games of her own volition and Naomi Osaka won, 6-2 6-4, becoming Japan’s first female Grand Slam winner.

So the debate among those who feel Ramos erred boils down to two key points:

  1. Men get away with far worse, so this is a double standard and sexism.
  2. Williams was in the wrong, but the umpire should have gone easier on her.

If the umpiring has been inconsistent, then it’s been to the benefit of Williams along the way too.

When the chair umpire called a hindrance during her 2011 US Open finals match against Sam Stosur, Williams unleashed hell.

“You’re a hater and you’re just unattractive inside,” she told the umpire. The manner of her ongoing verbal assault seven years ago gave the weekend’s events a deju vu-like quality.

Except back then the chair umpire was a woman. Williams was fined $2000 for her behaviour.

Or you’d think Wiliams would learn from her mistakes, having told a lineswoman at the 2009 US Open that she’d shove the ball “down your f%*ing throat” for calling a foot fault during her semi-final.

The lineswoman reported it to the umpire, and as she returned to her chair, Williams began moving towards her, pointing at her, ready to launch another tirade before the clearly intimidated official scurried back to the central chair.

It was Williams’ second code violation (an earlier one was for racket abuse) and cost her a point and the match.

As the tournament referee appeared courtside to decide her fate, Williams offered the defence that “a lot of people say way worse”. Sounds familiar.

Initially unrepentant post-match, she later apologised and promised to do better.

But that’s the context for this complaint from her coach.

But the champion herself set the benchmark during this week’s final when she declared “I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her”.

The arguments about sexism have neatly sidestepped debate about her on court behaviour per se.

When Kyrgios is called out, most Australians shrug their shoulders and say fair cop.

Many of the arguments about double standards point to male players from a generation ago for comparison. Standards on many levels have moved on from then, as Kyrgios knows all too well.

So what parent watching Williams in the final would like to see their child emulating her behaviour against match officials in any sport?

What parent would indulge them by arguing for leniency against such indolence and petulance, no matter how great and entertaining the talent?

What critic of this situation thinks it was acceptable to threaten to ban a match official for enforcing the rules?

What would those critics be saying if a male player had threatened a female umpire in that fashion?

There’s a difference between doing what’s right and pointing to the other side and arguing that they’re worse.

On any level Williams failed the test of doing what’s right during the match. If she was trying to use her anger as a motivational tool, as many have over the years on court, it didn’t work on this occasion.

She did make belated amends during the presentation when she asked the crowd to stop booing, but by then the whole situation had turned so ugly that a new 20-year-old champion’s moment of glory was overshadowed by the sense that Williams had been robbed of her record-equalling entitlement.

And Ramos paid a price too, with match officials deciding it was prudent to scrap the traditional presentation to the umpire.

Finally, Carlos Ramos himself does deserve some attention for his role.

The fact that he reserved the harshest penalty of his umpiring career for one of the all-time greats on one of the biggest stages does deserve scrutiny. There’s a case to be made that he may have been making an example of Williams in the same way a judge sometimes hands down harsher penalties in high profile cases for the same offence, but the merits of his umpiring should be left to tournament officials to decide. Part of their verdict is already in: $US17,000 in fines for Williams.

If you’re of the school that believes the best matches happen when the officiating is barely noticeable, then yes, this match failed that test.

But if you follow the game closely, then you’d know Ramos has a reputation as a stickler over the 11 years since he umpired his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon.

Kyrgios is just one of the highly ranked players who’ve accused him a double standards, and Andy Murray was pinged for a code violation during the Rio Olympics when he said it was “stupid umpiring”.

Murray also felt his wrath at last year’s French Open, along with Rafael Nadal, who felt he was being picked on by Ramos, while today’s US Open winner, Novak Djokovic, was also called for a code violation during that tournament with a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct “because of your attitude”.

So tournament officials had some idea of what to expect when they appointed Ramos to officiate the US Open women’s final. On that front he delivered in spades.

And the US Open has a new women’s champion.

This is an opinion column. The views expressed are those of the author.

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