To challenge the sexism steeped in the game of tennis, the ugliness had to take center stage.
The 2018 US Open women’s final was supposed to be a match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Instead, it became a sexist, petty power play between the chair umpire Carlos Ramos and Williams. Ramos chose to make the finals about himself rather than the game of tennis.
Osaka had won the first set comfortably 6-2, displaying extraordinary talent to beat her tennis idol, Williams. At the beginning of the second set, Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou made a gesture indicating she should approach the net, which he admitted was an attempt to coach her. Situated at the far end of the court, Williams did not even see the gesture. Understandably, she was taken aback when Ramos issued her a warning that she was being coached. Even though she was angry, her reaction to the code violation was very measured. She approached the chair umpire and said: “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I just want you to know that.”
Ramos should have accepted the word of the 23-time grand slam winner, perhaps even graciously clarified that the infraction was by committed by her coach, not her. That may have put a lid on the situation and the focus might have switched to the brilliant game of tennis between the two women.
Losing a crucial game in the second set, Williams banged her racket on the ground, breaking it, earning the second code violation. Ramos judged a point penalty, and Osaka started serving the 7th game 15-0, with the set tied three games apiece. Osaka comfortably won the game, taking her lead to 4-3.
Williams continued to exchange words with Ramos and called him a thief for taking a point away from her. Having been unfairly assessed the first code violation, the penalty assessed for breaking her racket was justifiably a stolen point from her. Yet again, Ramos could have diffused the situation by having a proper conversation with Williams, something he failed to do when the previous incidents transpired. After all, the job of a chair umpire is to referee the game, diffuse emotionally charged situations rather than escalate them. Instead, his ego bruised by being called a thief by a woman, the stubbornly obstinate Ramos issued a third code violation against Williams that resulted in a game penalty. Naomi Osaka went on to win the set 6-4, and the championship, in what has turned out to be one of the most controversial Grand Slam finals.
Tennis players from the past and now are rallying behind Williams’ call that there is sexism in the game even today. Earlier in the tournament, French player Alize Cornet was given a code violation for changing her shirt on court. Novak Djokovic, who takes off his shirt and sits in the court half-naked, is not even issued a warning, let alone a code violation.
During the 2017 French Open, Rafael Nadal threatened Ramos that he would never referee another one of his matches after being called out for taking more time than allowed between games. Roger Federer has verbally abused chair umpires several times in his career, but has never had a game deducted from him as penalty.
Serena Williams was accused of being a sore loser by Australian media soon after the finals. On the contrary, she was absolutely gracious during the trophy presentation when she chose to acknowledge that the moment belonged to Naomi Osaka. The only person who had the power over the crowd to stop its booing was Williams. She did not hesitate and did it with poise that ensured the ceremony proceeded in a dignified manner.
Williams was right to take the stand she did on and off the court on the day of the finals. Those who lament that her behavior disrupted the beautiful game of tennis ought to realize that to challenge the sexism that is steeped in the game and in the society, this ugliness had to take center stage, even if it was at the cost of taking something away from what could have been a beautiful game of tennis. And for that, we should thank Carlos Ramos.
*[A version of this article was cross-posted in the author’s newsletter, Polisocionomics. Updated: September 17, 2018, at 19:00 GMT.]
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