Serena Williams, the U.S. Open and Outrage Culture

Serena Williams pleads her case to the head referee of the U.S. Open

Last Saturday, the Ladies Final of the U.S. Open came to an inglorious end when Serena Williams, who was having a frustrating evening on Arthur Ashe stadium, came undone after chair umpire Carlos Ramos repeatedly penalized her for a series of code violations. As a fan of the sport, I watched the unfolding spectacle as if in a catatonic spell, skin-crawlingly uncomfortable but unable to avert my gaze. As a player — I have played tennis competitively for more than twenty years — I felt a deep empathy for Serena, because I know first-hand the mental agony of enduring the solitary confinement of a tennis court.

In the aftermath of the match, opinions predictably coalesced around one of two camps, with many defending Serena as having been unfairly treated, and others arguing that she lost her temper and was thus deserving of the assessed penalties. For her part, Serena accused Ramos of sexism, noting correctly that players often say and do far worse on court, though they are rarely penalized as harshly. Her detractors countered that the rule book is clear, the violations that Serena received are explicitly listed as code violations, and thus, justice was rightly served.

Initially, I was amused that so many people had formed such strong opinions about the incident, considering the fact that few of those people could even explain tennis’ unconventional scoring system, let alone its nuanced etiquette and unwritten code of conduct. Some pundits, writing for major publications, revealingly had trouble with tennis terminology, suggesting that they engaged in a sort-of crash course on the rules of conduct while hastily crafting their opinion pieces.

But after reading a few articles, I realized that for these people, the fact that this incident occurred on a tennis court was almost irrelevant. This was not a one-off, self-contained episode; rather, it was a moment that could be injected with a broader cultural context, allowing partisans on each side to apply canned ideological explanations. Another battle in an ongoing war of ideas about sexism, equality and changing social norms, both in sport and in life (sadly, two days later, the conversation also became about racism). It was an opportunity for outrage.

A conversation about larger social issues is all well and good, but we do ourselves no favors by stripping an event of its context. In this case, the relevant fact that it occurred on a tennis court, under a certain set of rules of conduct (both explicit and implicit), should guide the analysis of what happened, and, to the extent that there are any, the lessons that we take away.

For example, it is indisputable that according to tennis’ official code of conduct, a chair umpire may penalize a player if the chair witnesses the player’s team coaching her. It is also a certainty that a player who smashes a racquet will get penalized for racquet abuse (partly because racquet abuse is one of the least subjective penalties that can be assessed). And a penalty for verbal abuse, though uncommon, is warranted when an umpire determines that a player has crossed the line by threatening or berating the chair, a linesperson or a fan. Thus, by the letter of the law, Ramos was well within his right to penalize Serena.

But in tennis, as in life, context is everything, and analysis does not end with the letter of the law. When Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, casually admitted to using hand gestures, his intent was less a mea culpa than a criticism. His full quote, which Serena’s detractors seem to dismiss, goes on to say, “I was like 100 percent of the coaches on 100 percent of the matches, so we have to stop this hypocrite thing.” Mouratoglou’s larger point was not that he was uniquely guilty of coaching, but rather, that justice, unequally applied, becomes injustice.

And here is where having a more than passing knowledge of tennis becomes important. While a relative novice may look to the written code of conduct and arrive at a straightforward conclusion, the truth is that in most situations, the chair umpire has wide latitude in assessing code violations, and often exercises discretion before resorting to the code book (like giving a “soft warning” — essentially warning the player of an impending code violation — which normally cures the alleged violation). To players of both sexes, Ramos’ decision to immediately assess the first penalty without any forewarning predictably elicited a fit of anger from Serena, who justifiably felt unfairly singled out.

What’s worse, at no point did Ramos deescalate the situation. Again, as most tennis players know, a semi-private discussion with a chair umpire (with the microphone turned off) is a regular occurrence during a tennis match. Ramos could have at least attempted to simmer tensions, maybe by explaining to Serena that the code violation for coaching did not impugn her character, but rather, he witnessed a blatant act by her coach and felt obliged to call the penalty. It is not certain that such a comment would have tempered Serena’s anger, but it certainly wouldn’t have made the situation worse.

Ramos’ failure to exercise discretion is more apparent when examining his decision to penalize Serena for the third time. At any point before issuing the code violation for verbal abuse, Ramos could have warned Serena that she was pressing up against the line and that if she continued, he would be forced to penalize her. In fact, such a move is customary, and routinely practiced by experienced officials. Instead, he aggressively issued the penalty, which, because of her earlier infractions, cost her a whole game. In tennis terms, losing a game for a relatively minor verbal abuse violation is as draconian as getting a ten day jail sentence for jaywalking. It was a preposterous penalty, given both the scope of what was said and the scope of the moment — deep in the second set of the U.S. Open final.

When seen in this light, the resulting fallout is not unexpected. Serena lost the match, and 20-year old Naomi Osaka, who thoroughly outplayed Serena, rightly won. But the match was clouded by controversy, and the chair umpire’s actions made the match about what happened between him and a player rather than about the players themselves. That is truly unfortunate.

For those who seek a larger takeaway, the lessons I took differed from the ones proffered by the paid opinionators. For one, I would suggest that many commentators, especially those who have a relatively weak grasp of the nuances of the sport, might do well to listen to the voices from within the sport, rather than simply peddle their opinions in an effort to see who’s quicker to the draw and who can show more outrage.

Second, I would note that the exercise of discretion — a versatile instrument in the toolbox of authority figures — should be given its due. Applying discretion is a common part of daily life — from the police officer who gives you a warning for speeding to the high school teacher who allows her student to turn in his homework late. Had Ramos opted to simply let Serena blow off steam, or even if he had offered a gentle warning before assessing the third penalty, it is likely that the ensuing kerfuffle would have never occurred. We would all be better for his exercise of discretion.

Lastly, I would suggest a bit of empathy for Carlos Ramos, the purported villain of this story. I hesitate to resort to tropes like racism and sexism to explain an individual’s motives, especially when the person’s actions do not immediately lend themselves to such stigmatizing accusations. Few, if any of us will ever know what is in Carlos Ramos’ heart. What we do know is that he has an impeccable record as a fair chair umpire (that’s why he was asked to referee the final of the U.S. Open), though some have pointed out that he is a stickler for the pedantic. And while I have written quite a bit about his failure to exercise discretion, I avoided the temptation to try and guess at his motives. In fact, Occam’s Razor would suggest that it is altogether more likely that the best explanation for Ramos’ actions is that the moment got the better of him, and like Serena, he too was rattled by the crowd’s booing and the chaotic atmosphere, and ultimately did not make the best decision.

The outcome was unfortunate for everyone involved. It is disappointing to see that in our ongoing battle over who can be more outraged more of the time, we have made it more unfortunate still.