The biggest story to come out of the US Open this year is not about the winner, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, but the controversy surrounding the runner-up, Serena Williams. Williams, a highly accomplished professional tennis player and winner of 23 Major singles titles, has become the center of a maelstrom of controversy about sportsmanship, racism, sexism and the nature of women’s sports. The final match of the US Open, which took place on Sept. 8, was filled with code violations, a broken racket, and controversial calls by umpire Carlos Ramos, before ending in a decisive 6-2 and 6-4 victory by Osaka.
Williams, who has played alongside her sister, Venus Williams, at the professional level since 1981, began the match with a loss in the first set, losing six to two. What followed was a series of incidents between Williams and Ramos that marked the game as one of the most contentious US Open matches in the tournament’s history.
The situation began with a code violation that Ramos called over sideline-coaching from Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Ramos, well known in the tennis community for his strictness, issued Williams an official warning over a hand movement that Mouratoglou made, allegedly directing Williams on her in-game strategy. After losing the game, Williams spoke with the umpire while changing sides of the court, denying the code violation and claiming that she would “rather lose” than cheat.
Leading three games to one, the second controversy of the day came when Williams yelled and smashed her racket into the court following a returned volley that cost her the game. Ramos issued Williams a second code violation, which carried a penalty of one point. Williams, having misunderstood his first call, charged the umpire’s chair and began an argument which shifted the conversation off of the game itself and onto issues that she felt were underlying Ramos’ decisions.
“You owe me an apology,” Williams yelled to Ramos, encouraged by the angry crowd of spectators. “I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology.” The argument continued between points as Williams, furious after Ramos’ calls, began to lose game after game. After continuing to demand an apology, claiming that the umpire was attacking her character rather than her behavior, Ramos issued her a third code violation for verbal abuse, docking her a game.
Williams called over officials to argue the call. “This is not fair,” she told one of them. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, but if they’re men, that doesn’t happen to them.”
Williams went on to drop her lead, losing the game, the set and the match to Naomi Osaka, whose incredible win – the first Grand Slam title for any Japanese player in history – was overshadowed by a tense and awkward award ceremony. Williams, who hugged Osaka at the net, refused to shake Ramos’ hands after the match.
Since the final, Williams has become the center of a storm of controversy. She is not new to argumentation and adversity, having faced intense discrimination as a black woman performing on a professional scale and has not hesitated to argue back, notably in her 2004 and 2009 matches in the US Open. However, the intensity of the argument has made this year’s match stand out from previous years and has brought condemnation down on all sides. Many current and retired US Open winners have criticized Carlos Ramos for his refereeing, saying that his enforcement of the sideline-coaching rule was ridiculous and disproportionate.
Billie Jean King, regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a lifelong proponent of gender equality, praised Williams for speaking out against the issues that female athletes face. “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it.” King tweeted. “When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard.”
Other voices have been more critical of Williams’ behavior, citing her past history of arguing with referees and opponents and accusing her of unsportsmanlike conduct. The most controversial criticism came in the form of a cartoon by Australian cartoonist Mark Knight. The cartoon, published in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, pictures Williams throwing a tantrum, jumping up and down on her tennis racket while Ramos tells Osaka “Can you just let her win?” The cartoon has provoked outrage worldwide for its white-washing of Ramos and Osaka and its depiction of Williams, which critics have condemned as a racist, misogynistic, Jim Crow-era caricature. The Herald Sun has stood by Knight’s illustration, following it up with an issue devoted to criticizing “politically correct” culture in the wake of the conflict.
This is not a new conversation. From Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, the fine line between caricature and racism has been crossed countless times throughout the history of sports journalism. While Williams’ experience in the US Open is notable, the issue being debated is bigger than the tournament, bigger than tennis and bigger than sports as a whole.
Brendan Lordan is a second-year student majoring in English writings. BL895080@wcupa.edu.