The world of tennis is all-too-familiar with gender-based scandals, especially when it comes to Serena Williams. But today’s U.S. Open Tennis Women’s Championship was perhaps the worst and most public display of overt sexism the sport has faced in a long time (and yes, that includes the catsuit).
With Serena Williams making her post-pregnancy comeback on her ‘home court’, all eyes were on this year’s Arther Ashe stadium on the second Saturday night in September. But the match was anything for a comeback for Williams and more like a physical, sexist, and cultural nightmare that made the US Open and the world of tennis look like a badly crafted episode of Mad Men.
In case you missed the echoes of 23,771 people in the New York City tennis stadium booing the directors of the Open during the awards ceremony, the hour and 19-minute match between Williams and 20-year-old Naomi Osaka was riddled with controversial calls, confusion, and the US Open’s latest newly minted controversy in a week filled with newly minted gender-based controversies. Below is a breakdown of what happened, the sexist double standards that potentially changed the outcome of this game, and why tennis seriously, seriously, has a problem with Serena Williams.
“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
Trouble started after the umpire – Carlos Ramos – issued Serena a warning because her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, made hand motions from his seat in the stands for Williams to move forward to the net against her opponent.
Warnings against ‘coaching’ are rare in the sport of tennis, despite how normal it is for coaches to motion or even yell at their players during their games. Later replay of the incident showed that Mouratoglou’s hands were low (i.e. out of visibility from the tennis court) and that Williams wasn’t watching him for coaching, making the umpire’s warning entirely bizarre. Most bizarre of all, however, was that there was no verbal warning issued to Serena or her coach, which, as the broadcaster and former US tennis player Chris Everett noted during her commentary on the match, was very odd for the sport.
Williams was confused by the call, approached Ramos (the umpire) for clarification and then respectfully explained that she and her coach were not communicating with one another,”I don’t cheat to win,” Serena said. “I’d rather lose.”
“You owe me an apology!”
Serena was fired up with the official in the final set of the US Open final. pic.twitter.com/r6RSbrirnV
— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2018
Nevertheless, Ramos did not revoke the warning, despite the call being preemptive and what commentators considered to be an overreaction.
The Sexist Double Standard
With Serena getting back into the game, she began to slice Osaka’s lead, making the strong but signature comeback she is known for. But after faltering during a point, William’s slammed her racquet. Which is when the umpire issued his second warning, resulting in Serena receiving a point penalty for bad behavior (and Osaka being awarded a point).
No one is arguing that this point penalty wasn’t warranted. Plenty of players smash their racquets and get penalties. In fact, plenty of players smash their racquets, get penalties, verbally tear into and curse out umpires, and then continue to play the game. Just reference this list of the top male tennis player’s tantrums throughout time.
But what doesn’t happen to male tennis players, and what happened to Serena, was that when she did confront the umpire, upset by both the latest and previous call, she didn’t throw down curse after curse like the guys. Instead, she let the umpire know;
“You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.”
Those were the exact words which warranted in an additional penalty against Serena, and an additional point being awarded to Osaka, leaving Osaka one point away from winning the match and the Championship crown.
At this point, Williams called for the tournament referee and brought to words what woke viewers everywhere were thinking: this is some sexist shit.
Except Serena didn’t phrase it that way. She wouldn’t. Instead, in tears, William’s wept,
“There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman you’re going to take this away from me?” Williams said. “That is not right.”
Pleading with the tournament referees, she continued, “I don’t think I do much worse,” and added, “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things but because they are men, that doesn’t happen to them.”
The Tennis Femininity Police
Embed from Getty Images
Sports have always had a double standard for men and women, especially when it comes to policing behavior (including everything from clothing to body types to body size to body appearance to attitude and to language). Tennis, has been one of sport’s femininity police’s fragrant supporters (or criminals), in part due to the presence of Serena Williams.
From the get-go, William’s Blackness and humble roots positioned her as an outsider from the rather white, upper-crust world that is tennis. Throughout her career, she’s been called an ape, a man, questioned over steroid use, and been made fun of by other tennis professional players for her natural curviness.
As the Guardian’s Erika Nicole Kendall states, ” It’s common for women athletes – especially when they win – to be derided as something other than women.”
And Serena is a winner. She’s been winning since she was 15 – ironically gaining her first Grandslam title on the court at Arther Ashe at just 18-years-old, and continuing to dominate the sport to become The Greatest these past twenty years.
As the sport’s most decorated woman – and as a Black woman at that – Serena’s legacy is closely tied to the adversity she has faced with mostly all of that adversity being in the form of policing her Blackness, her poorness, her womaness (and in most cases all three of those things).
Tonight was no different. While the commentators of the U.S. Open speculated about why such preemptive calls were made by the umpire – Carlos Ramos – during the match, the answer was rooted in all of the history and all of the subversiveness Williams brings to tennis: she is a woman, she is Black, she is entirely self-made, she is vocal, and she is a winner. None of these identities have ever done Williams any favors in the tennis world, despite Serena being the best thing for the sport of tennis.
“I stood up for what I believed in. I stood up for what is right.”
Despite the millions of dollars going into making tennis more ‘accessible’ to ‘everyday’ Americans (the ones not in the 99% that can’t afford $100,000 box seats per session, I guess?), without Williams in the league, the US Tennis Association would have little of its own to stand on. At least when it comes to making the sport ‘accessible’ to the masses, as it continually claims it is trying to do.
Even during an awkward award ceremony riddled with ridiculous questions, Serena stepped up to be the best form of PR for the sport of tennis once again, calming the crowd down by telling them to ‘stay positive’, and turning their negative attention onto positive attention for the clearly upset Osaka – who felt the need to apologize (which is riddled in its own gendered narrative).
At a later press conference, Serena recrowned herself as this sport’s only reigning demigod, owning her actions on the court and telling a reporter who asked her what she would’ve done differently that,
“I stood up for what I believed in. I stood up for what is right.”
Williams went on to say that even though she wasn’t able to win either the match or prove her point to the bureaucratic tennis deities of their sexist attitudes tonight, she hoped she inspired other women and girls to stand up for themselves and force others to hear women’s voices:
“I’m going to continue to fight for women, and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams said, going on to cite the mishandling of female tennis player Alize Cornet’s penalty for changing her shirt on the court earlier in the tournament.
“The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves because they are strong women. They are going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
As Williams continues to lift both her game -and the wokeness – of an otherwise notably sexist (and racist) world of tennis, her fans will continue to support her and she will continue to be the best thing that’s happened to the image of the sport.
In the meantime, it’s more than fair to say that today was a disgrace to the world of tennis, and that this tournament was a disaster for the progression of women in athletics.