Much has been written since the women’s final of the 2018 US Open Tennis Championships saw world number one Serena Williams beaten by a young rising star Naomi Osaka after receiving a code violation warning, then a point penalty and finally a game penalty, which put Osaka in an excellent place to win the second set 6-4 and the match. Elite opinion, especially overseas, has come down heavily in Williams’ favour, blaming the umpire Carlos Ramos for his handling of the incident, which, it is said, was an example of sexism because he would never have treated a male player so harshly, and probably racism to boot.
I’ll tell you my opinion, on the evidence I’ve seen (I didn’t watch the match) and comment on the commentary. My conclusion is that tennis needs to put its house in order, and has missed a golden opportunity to enforce rules so that tennis fans can expect to see excellent tennis being played, rather than players venting.
Sports where competitors or teams oppose each other in the course of the game are governed by a set of rules which are then policed in real time by a referee or umpire. In most sports respect for the umpire has been given increasing emphasis so that what the public is presented with the game being played.
Probably the best account of what happened at Flushing Meadows in New York was this from Business Insider:
The first violation was for coaching, and occurred in the second game of the second set while Osaka was serving.
Williams angrily responded, approaching the chair and telling Ramos that she was not being coached but rather being given a thumbs up from her box, which she said she not have been a violation.
“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose,” she said.
‘Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me?’
Williams was then given a second violation for smashing her racket. The second violation cost Williams a point, meaning Osaka had a 15-0 even before hitting her first serve in the sixth game of the second set.
Williams confronted Ramos again, unwrapping a new racket and demanding an apology from Ramos and calling him a “thief.”
“You owe me an apology,” she said. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her. I’ve never cheated, and you owe me an apology. You will never do another one of my matches.”
She continued: “And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief.”
Ramos then gave Williams her third code violation for verbal abuse, which gave her a game penalty that put Osaka up 5-3.
Williams, enraged, summoned the referee Brian Earley and argued that she was being unfairly penalized based on her gender, because men had done worse without being punished.
“Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me?” she said. “This has happened to me too many times.”
Osaka would go on to win the match shortly after the penalty was assessed, earning the first major title of her young career.
I would add that Richard Ings said (see below) “Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, made clear and repeated coaching gestures to his player on the court.” It seems the coach has subsequently changed his story to bring it into line with Serena’s.
I’ve used bold where she crossed a line not crossed by male players with whom she has been compared.
Williams and Mouratoglou would have known that Ramos was a stickler for the rules, and what was at stake.
Andrew Slack, former captain of the Australian Rugby Union side, in his weekly column for the Courier Mail (can’t find it on the net) said that if Williams had said on a rugby field what she said at Flushing Meadow, she would have been red-carded and handed a lengthy suspension to boot. He said that this was not always so – he had himself spoken to referees in words he would not let his mother hear, and surprised himself with words coming out of his mouth he didn’t know he knew. However, tolerance of this kind of thing has decreased over the years.
Much, he says, has changed in refereeing over the last 40 years, but he checked World Rugby’s law book to find that the referee is still “the sole judge of fact and law during a match”. These days that is not strictly true, because the referee gets assistance from linesmen and video review, but the judgement is delivered to players by the referee and must be respected.
In this case the United States Tennis Association and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) heavily backed Williams. Apparently displays of anger and dissent are acceptable to them. The USTA glossed over that part, hailing Williams post-match “class” for asking the crowd to stop booing the umpire after the match because it was upsetting Osaka, who thought they were booing her.
The WTA labelled the Williams’ treatment as “sexist”, saying she was not treated the same way a male player would have been during her argument with an umpire.
However, the International Tennis Federation released a statement backing umpire Carlos Ramos:
- “Carlos Ramos is one of the most experienced and respected umpires in tennis,” the ITF’s statement read. “Mr. Ramos’ decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were re-affirmed by the U.S. Open’s decision to fine Serena Williams for 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.”
It seems the WTA runs the women’s tour, and a separate organisation, the Association of Tennis Professionals runs the men’s tour in parallel. As far as I can see the ATF have said nothing. The BBC’s Russell Fuller suggests there is too much fragmentation. However, the umpires appear to have no special group. Perhaps they should, because Ramos was paid the princely sum of $633 for taking charge of the Osaka-Williams encounter, which was “only a shade more than the $548 that 23-time grand slam winner Williams earned every second she was on court while losing 6-2 6-4.”
I think that’s Australian dollars.
Philip Clark, hosting the ABC local radio program Nightlife said that in the AFL if a player spoke at all to the referee during the game, the team would be marched 50 metres. For a second offence, the player would be sent off.
There is little doubt, I think, that tennis has a special problem in how it deals with player behaviour and especially in dissent of umpires’ rulings.
Richard Ings in the SMH, a former umpire who gave John McEnroe a game penalty on the 1987 US Open, supported Ramos, and said umpires call such matches “welcome to the job” matches. (See also his interview with Leigh Sales.
Ings was a professional chair umpire from 1986 to 1993 and was ATP Tour Executive Vice-President, Rules and Competition, from 2001 to 2005.
The memories and scars of my welcome to the job match are fresh even more than 30 years later. Ramos will be going through much the same emotions.
He believes Williams owed Ramos an apology.
Anna Kessell at The Guardian in Serena Williams again bears brunt of double standards in tennis suggests that tennis has a problem with women, especially black women. There has been a torrent of similar commentary which accepts that Williams was in the wrong, but asserts that men behaving just as badly or worse are treated more leniently. It is a case of double standards, they say.
ABC broadcaster Tracey Holmes holds this view, and is one of the few who makes the case by quoting specifics.She picks out Rafael Nadal, Novak Đoković, Andy Murray and Nick Kyrgios, then gives three cases:
At the 2017 French Open, Đoković accused Ramos of “losing his mind”.
This year at Wimbledon, he accused Ramos of “double standards” in a series of animated conversations during a quarter final match against Japan’s Kei Nishikori.
He never had a game awarded against him.
In 2016 Kyrgios suggested Ramos showed “incredible bias” and continued to question the umpire before saying a code violation awarded to him was “f***ing bullshit”. But there was no game awarded to Kyrgios’s opponent.
Murray at the Rio Olympic Games accused Ramos of “stupid umpiring” in his semi-final match against Kei Nishikori and went on to say, “if you want to the be the star of the show, that’s fine”.
No point deduction.
I would point out that Ramos did not give a point penalty for the first violation, but then escalated in response to Williams’ escalation.
In none of these cases did a player call the umpire a liar, a cheat, demand an apology or threaten his employment.
Holmes seems to be saying that we need to walk in Williams’ shoes to understand that the umpire was racist. She takes what is at best a marginal difference in treatment, which I think she gets wrong, then amplifies it into a large binary (I was going to say black and white). Is she arguing that Williams has the right to behave as badly as the men she nominates? She appears to be arguing Williams’ right to be “a loud, forthright, black woman unafraid of standing her ground.”
“Standing her ground” involved escalating the issue to the point where she demanded the umpire review his decision, admit he got it wrong and then apologise during the course of the game. I suspect that would have been a first in the history of sport.
Still, I didn’t watch the whole match, which Holmes says you must before you can comment. However, my concern is that the argument is located in a strange place where you are accepting bad as a feature of the game that somehow can’t be changed and must be coped with by dispensing equal punishment.
Mike Colman in the Courier Mail (pay-walled) thinks Williams got off lightly. He compares her fine with that levied in other incidents. Her fine was US$17,000, about one per cent of her match payment of US$1.86 million.
Nick Kyrgios was suspended for 12 weeks and fined US$41,500 ($6000 more than his purse) for tanking and clashing with spectators at the Shanghai Masters two years ago.
Colman says there was in the Williams case a “certain symmetry with the notorious case of [Jeff] Tarango at Wimbledon in 1995.”
Tarango was given a code violation when he told the crowd to “shut up” when he was serving. Because the umpire reckoned he had uttered an “audible obscenity” Tarango caused a stir asking to see the match referee.
When the code violation stood, Tarango called the umpire “the most corrupt official in the game”, whereupon he was issued with another code violation. Tarango then stormed off the court. Tarango was subsequently fined his entire US$43,756 prizemoney and suspended for two tournaments.
I don’t think the case is all that similar, but it highlights that the Williams fine was paltry. Williams, whatever the struggles of her past, is a rich woman with celebrity star power. Her best course would have been to cop the initial code violation for coaching, then say what she wanted to say after the match. No doubt there is residual racism and sexism in tennis. People would have listened. As it is we now have a shouting match in the media rather than sensible discussion. Moreover people have been reminded of the incident in the semifinal of the 2009 US Open when Williams was foot-faulted when serving down match point to Kim Clijsters. Williams received a point penalty:
- for intimidating a line judge by allegedly telling her: “I swear to God, I’m f—— going to take this f—— ball and shove it down your f—— throat, you hear that? I swear to God.”
Clijsters went on the win the final, in her first slam after having a baby.
Williams subsequently apologised:
“I want to amend my press statement of yesterday,” the new release by Williams began, “and want to make it clear as possible – I want to apologise first to the lineswoman, Kim Clijsters, the USTA and mostly tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst. I’m a woman of great pride, faith and integrity, and I admit when I’m wrong.
“I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to act – win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner. I like to lead by example. We all learn from experiences both good and bad, I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.”
One wonders how much she has learnt in nine years. I believe that if she erupts in a similar manner in the future permanent damage will be done to her reputation. Or perhaps norms have changed and it is now cool to be angry if you are a woman playing tennis.
Williams initial reaction in 2009 writing on the blog global.grind.com had been that the penalty was totally sexist, demanding equal treatment with McEnroe and Tarango.
Umpires are now said to be restive in this piece:
a source told The Times some umpires are considering refusing to officiate matches involving Williams in the wake of her attack on Ramos.
Ramos, 47, was “thrown to the wolves for simply doing his job and was not willing to be abused for it,” one anonymous umpire told the English paper.
Australian former umpire Richard Ings also reported feelings of unrest. “The umpiring fraternity is thoroughly disturbed at being abandoned by the WTA,” Ings told ESPN.com.
“They are all fearful that they could be the next Ramos. They feel that no one has their back when they have to make unpopular calls.”
The main point of that piece, however, was that Katrina Adams, CEO of the USTA, was overheard apologising to Carlos Ramos in Zadar ahead of the US team’s Davis Cup tie against Croatia where Ramos was officiating. This appeared on Twitter:
I can see now why Adams said Williams was “an inspiration to me, personally”.
Bad behaviour in tennis probably began in earnest with Ilie Nastase who recently as captain of the Romanian Davis Cup team was handed a four-year ban for racist slur about Serena Williams. The flame was then carried forward by ‘superbrat’ John “You cannot be serious” McEnroe, who said later that he wasn’t in fact serious and was actually urged on by his sponsors.
However, at the Australian Open in 1990 McEnroe was booted out of the tournament after a series of incidents, McEnroe says because he didn’t know, or forgot that the former four-step process had been reduced to three. However, on the final occasion he reportedly told the official to “go f*** your mother” which was ever only going to have one result.
The fans booed because they wanted to see McEnroe play. At the time McEnroe was only 30 years old had not won a grand slam since 1984.
McEnroe seems to have set the benchmark for bad behaviour in tennis.
One of the more informed and insightful comments was Peter Terry, Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern Queensland, in This is bigger than Serena Williams: lessons from the 2018 US Open tennis. He calls for a rethink of the non-coaching rule, because there is inconsistency in when the rule applies. His main point, however, is that umpires need to be more mindful of consistency, especially when coaching women.
Rather it’s time, I think, for tennis to redraw the lines on what is acceptable behaviour on a tennis court and eliminate all the aggro. I was disappointed earlier this year to see Novak Đoković back to breaking racquets. If the penalty for racquet abuse was an automatic game penalty, they would disappear overnight. Using point and game penalties, fines and suspensions, authorities could establish and enforce a regime where players can clarify decisions with the umpire but not engage in dissenting behaviour.
It’s worth noting that our Ash Barty won the women’s 2018 US Open Sportsmanship Award (John Isner won the men’s):
- “Very surprised, very humbling, I think,” Barty said. “I always try to do my best on the court to compete and try the best that I can, but in the same breath also have good sportsmanship and respect my opponent, respect the tournament and respect everything that goes on behind the scenes to make it a possibility.”
I heard her say that she just concentrates on playing her tennis. She presented the $5000 award to the RSPCA.
Serena Williams did show care and use her star power to retrieve the winning experience for Naomi Osaka.
Tennis will not be healed, however, until this man can again umpire a match involving Serena Williams without anyone worrying about what might happen:
Tom Heenan, who teaches sports studies at Monash University, reminds us that until Althea Gibson in the 1950s, African-Americans were barred from the US Open and played in their own tournaments. The sport has come a long way since then, but Heenan also reminds us that at the US Open this year Frenchwoman Alize Cornet was hit with a code violation during her first-round match because on a hot New York City day, she removed her shirt on-court because it was back-to-front.
He also does better than others in highlighting different treatment of male players. Nadal in particular, I think, should have been fined and given a suspension when he told Ramos after one encounter that he would “never chair another of his matches again”.
However, to conclude that Serena was completely right misses the repair job that should be done to the game. If, however, in rewriting the rules and their management you want to take on board the full feminist and anti-racist critique, I’d say, good luck with that.
Update: There is a very detailed and sensible account and commentary by Carey Page – Was the game penalty handed to Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open Final reasonable? at Quora (click on ‘more’ to get the full story).
The warning for coaching came towards the end of the second game in the second set, which Osaka won on serve to make it 1-1. At that stage Williams could have shrugged it off and settled to play tennis. She did well enough to break Osaka’s next serve to get 3-1 ahead. Then she netted a passing shot from Osaka to have her serve broken to make it 3-2 in her favour.
At that point she broke her racquet, which was then an automatic point penalty.
That gave Osaka a 15-0 start to her service game, which she would have been expected to win. She did, and then broke Williams again to lead 4-3. However, Williams clearly lost it after the smashed racquet incident. But it was at 4-3 to Osaka when Williams gave Ramos a gobfull the second time, calling him a cheat and a thief and demanding an apology that he gave the game penalty to make Osaka 5-3 in front.
Then on Williams serve Osaka purposely lost every point to give Williams a game back to make it 5-4.
However, all Osaka needed to do was serve out the match, which she did.
Williams refused to shake hands with Ramos at the end of the match.
Page’s bottom line:
It was an ugly match with an ugly end, and failing to hold Serena Williams accountable for a large part of that is turning a blind eye to the truth of what happened on that court.
There are two articles at the NYT if you can break in:
- Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong
- Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka: How the U.S. Open Descended Into Chaos by David Waldstein
Not sure the links will work.
The Waldstein article is the most detailed you are ever likely to see.
They all point out that an umpire must issue a code violation for coaching if he sees it, and coaching is what was going on. Navratilova points out that whether the player sees the coaching at this point is irrelevant.
Calm seemed to reign after this exchange:
Williams calmly said again that she did not cheat, and Ramos said, “I know that.”
It was the final moment of calm, and Williams said, “O.K., thank you so much.”
The discombobulation seemed to start after Williams didn’t realise that after the point penalty she had to receive serve in the ad court rather than the deuce side. Perhaps she thought she had persuaded Ramos to withdraw the point penalty, which would never happen.
Williams seemed to deteriorate mentally from there. However, after calling for and talking to Brian Earley, the tournament referee and Donna Kelso, the Grand Slam supervisor, with Serena complaining that the men get more latitude, we got this in a calm voice:
- “I know you know it,” she said to Earley. “I know you can’t admit it, but it’s not right. I know you can’t change it, but I’m saying, it’s not right. I get the rules, but I’m just saying it’s not right.
Then, just before returning to the court she said: “It’s not fair. That’s all I have to say.”
But it wasn’t over, as she refused to acknowledge the umpire after the match and has held her ground ever since.
Navratilova’s big point is that women may get a rough deal, but they owe good behaviour to the game and should not measure themselves by the bad behaviour of men.