Except for Osaka, the 20-year-old denied her moment of joyful glory, nobody came out of this sorry spectacle untarnished.
But if pick a side one must, I will ally with Serena.
The lady has earned it. Even if this was not her most admirable episode.
A veteran umpire, Carlos Ramos, notorious for his stringent application of the rules, dropped a piano on Williams’ head in the women’s final. She was headed for defeat, outplayed and outsmarted by an opponent 16 years her junior. Williams has more Grand Slam singles titles – 23 – than Osaka has years on this planet. She was doubtless embarrassed by the quality of her play, by the tennis Osaka was forcing upon her. Although keep in mind how often Williams has stormed back from the precipice of defeat.
But it should never have come to such an ignoble end.
Umpiring isn’t narrowly, exclusively, about asserting the rules. It’s also about judgment, beyond Hawk-Eye reviews.
A week earlier, respected umpire Mohamed Lahyani had stepped down from his chair, mid-match, to give Nick Kyrgios a pep talk when it looked like the volatile young Australian was coming unhinged, might even have been on the verge of tanking against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. He has a history of it. Lahyani was scorched for the unusual intervention. But many of us viewed it as a compassionate gesture, if outside the bounds of protocol.
Various tennis and tournament organizations concluded that Lahyani had overstepped but he was not punished. He was, I would posit, being human. There isn’t enough of that within the rigidity of sports.
In the Serena affair, however, the umpiring junta is doing its version of baseball’s jacked-up masked tyrants — making the game all about them. When nobody comes to see them.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that some umpires, stung by what they perceive as a lack of institutional support for Ramos, are discussing the possibility of boycotting Williams’ future matches. They’re also talking union. Oy.
To be clear: Ramos has lost this battle only in the court of public opinion, possibly. There’s certainly been no shortage of Ramos rah-rah from the commentariat. But these unidentified officials have got their duck-pants in a snarl, presumably miffed with United States Tennis Association president Katrina Adams, who issued a statement praising Williams as a “true champion” and an “inspiration.” Adams said this week that a double standard exists in how female tennis players are treated by chair umpires, compared to men. “We shouldn’t have to carry that extra weight on our back in anything that we do.”
WTA chief executive Steve Simon backed Williams as well. So did Billie Jean King, who knows all about discrimination and sexual bias.
Was there an undercurrent of sexism which skewed Ramos against Williams? That will probably never be known. Indeed, when she’d calmed down, Williams graciously paid Ramos a compliment: “He’s always been a great umpire.”
The statistics don’t bear out a gender imbalance at this U.S. Open. Code violations called were 86 for men, 22 for women. But it would require a deeper dive to truly understand those numbers — what the violations were for — and of course men play best-of-five matches, a broader canvas for infractions.
But anecdotally, and specifically with Williams, the history speaks for itself. At Flushing Meadows: the 2004 quarterfinals versus Jennifer Capriati, a slew of questionable calls, including the scandalous override on a shot that TV replay (this was pre-Hawk-Eye) showed was good; the 2009 semifinals against Kim Clijsters, called for a foot fault, warned for caustic remarks to the chair umpire, then penalized a point — on match point; the 2011 final against Sam Stosur, docked a point for screaming her signature “Come On!” before the rally was over. “You’re a hater,” Williams seethed at chair umpire Eva Asderaki. “And you’re just unattractive inside.”
Williams is a ruthless competitor. It’s what makes her magnificent. She doesn’t always watch her mouth. But there’s a solid argument to be made that the punitive measures against her have been palpably disproportionate.
An angry Black woman. Some people just can’t swallow that.
And she had cause to be angry last Saturday, at Ramos.
Yes, there was evidence of slight coaching from her box. Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to that afterward. The player is responsible for the coach. But it could have been and should have been an informal warning. That’s commonplace. “I don’t cheat, I’d rather lose, I’m just letting you know,” Williams told Ramos. She reiterated that message, calmly, on a changeover before the fourth game..
After breaking Osaka and getting promptly broken back, Williams smashed her racquet in self-fury. Destroying equipment is a clear code violation. Had Ramos not been so tight-arsed earlier, that would have been the first code violation, not the second. Williams thought it was; perhaps naively believing Ramos had reversed himself on the prior. She certainly appeared as confused as everybody else in the joint.
Docked a point.
With Osaka serving at 2-3, Williams obviously thought the score was 0-0, until told to move to the deuce side because it was 0-15. That’s when it went nutso. “This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems.”
Williams was under the impression she had one warning on her. She had two. The arguing and Williams’ consternation escalated. “You owe me an apology,” she insisted of Ramos. Then concluded by saying he would never umpire one of her matches again.
When Osaka broke her again, Williams was fit to be tied. She flung her rage at Ramos. “You’re a thief!”
Ramos, announcing to the crowd: “Code violation, verbal abuse. Game penalty, Mrs. Williams.”
She’s not Mrs. Williams, by the way.
What prissy, anachronistic hogwash. On the heels of Williams getting denounced for the sleek cat suit she’d worn at the French Open, which was intended to help her circulation, plagued as she’s been by blood clots since a difficult childbirth last summer. The president of the French Tennis Associate, declaring such an outfit would henceforth be banned — why, because it showed off her muscles, wasn’t feminine enough? — accused Williams of disrespecting the sport.
It all smacks of patriarchal condescension and a definite anti-Serena tone.
Just as calling Williams a “cry-baby,” as many have declared since last weekend, is infantilizing and subtly racist to boot. Though not as overtly racist as that godawful editorial cartoon — hitting all the bigoted Jim Crow-era notes — published (and defiantly re-published) by the Melbourne-based Herald Sun. Big-lipped, fat, angry black woman, with a teeny BLONDE Osaka in the background. Osaka is biracial, Japanese and Haitian.
Maybe there’s no entitlement for sports superstars in the anal annals of the rule book.
But hell yeah, Serena Williams is entitled to her wrath.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno