A Look at all the Facts: The Serena Williams Controversy
Coming from a family of tennis players and aficionados, the recent Serena Williams US Open controversy sparked a heated debate at my dinner table, as it did across the entire tennis community and country as a whole. While many were quick to express their opinions after learning about the events that transpired at this historic women’s final match, I decided to take a step back and carefully weigh the facts before answering the question – on which side of the net did I stand?
The controversy surrounds the US Open women’s final match between Williams and Naomi Osaka. For Williams, the stakes were high, seeing as the event was her first U.S. Open final after a hiatus from tennis due to the birth of her first child. The match was also momentous for Osaka, who not only found herself facing her childhood idol, but was the first Japanese woman to reach the US Open Finals. While the showdown only lasted an hour and 19 minutes, and culminated in Osaka winning 6-2 and 6-4, it was anything but straightforward.
The crux of the game’s controversy lies in the three code violations that Williams received, courtesy of the umpire, Carlos Ramos. First, Williams was accused of receiving on-court coaching, which she vehemently denies; then, after experiencing frustration at having hit a shot into the net, she smashed her racket, losing her a point; lastly, Williams called Ramos a “thief,” which caused him to deduct an entire game. Ultimately, the three code violations resulted in her being fined $17,000.
Shortly following the match, cartoonist Mark Knight published a comic which portrayed the situation in a way that many viewers found offensive. Williams is shown throwing a tantrum by stomping on her racket, while Osaka and Ramos are chatting in the background, with Ramos shown asking, “Can you just let her win?” Many noted that Williams was depicted in a way that was reminiscent of Jim Crow comics, which was itself objectionable to me and many others. Next to her is a pacifier, insinuating that Knight saw her behavior during the match as childish and uncalled for. In sharp contrast, Osaka, a tall, muscular Japanese woman, is depicted as a petite, blonde white woman. Knight blatantly misrepresented Osaka, solely for the purpose of victimizing her.
Commenting in the hours and days after the match, Williams highlighted that she had witnessed many male players react the same way she had (smashing rackets, yelling, etc.), without receiving comparable punishment. I certainly think she was in the right in pointing this out this inequity, and that if a man had been in this position, no such comic would have been created.
Upon further research of Ramos’ track record as an umpire, I noticed that a majority of those defending his actions were white male tennis players, who are likely unaware, or at the least, less attuned to the implicit biases that minority athletes are forced to contend with. Many of those who are quick to pin the blame entirely on Serena are often ignorant to the ways in which her identity affected how she was treated.
Many tennis umpires are not only often insensitive to the discrimination faced by women, particularly women of color, in sports, but are also inconsistent in terms of what should constitute a penalty.
“Carlos Ramos is known to be one of the most strict umpires at the US Open, which is not a problem, but if one umpire is extremely rigid, all of them should be,” said Jolie Krebs (‘20), who was a ball girl at the match.
In addition to applying a consistent standard to players who violate the rules, tennis umpires need to make the rules abundantly clear to the players.
Apple Lydon (‘21), the #1 varsity singles player at Packer, weighed in, sharing that “if they went over the rules with the players, obviously Williams wouldn’t have done this. This was a crucial point in the match, and she wouldn’t have given up a whole game. She didn’t know the consequences. Players need to be educated on the rules.”
If rules were consistently implemented in matches and explicitly reviewed with players, much of the confusion that arose during this match could have been avoided.
William’s frustration over the penalties was entirely justified, since she felt both that they were unclear and came from a place of prejudice. However, she wasn’t entirely without blame. Given that many of her young, impressionable fans were watching the match, Williams bore the responsibility to conduct herself in a professional manner on court. Her behavior detracted from Osaka’s accomplishment, and her compelling arguments against the double standard in tennis were better saved for after the championship match.
Tennis is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, and it is imperative that players do their best to separate their emotions and opinions from their playing. People would have been much more receptive to Williams’ points had she made them, when cooler heads prevailed, off the court – even the best champions have room for improvement.