Unintended Consequences

“I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.” -Serena Williams

I wrote after the Wimbledon final that Serena was clearly feeling some pressure. Chasing down #24 was one thing, assuming the role of hero to all moms imposed an even heavier burden.

Serena’s return comes with a full-throated marketing campaign insistent that, whatever she achieves next, will be all the more remarkable because she’s a mother now. Her new identity might even enhance her instincts as a warrior.

At least that appears to be the message in the Chase Bank ad where Serena glowers, “Momma’s gonna knock you out.” In a Beats by Dre spot featuring Nicki Minaj, Serena wears the crown of a queen. For a player’s who’s already transcended the sport on multiple fronts, asking herself to yet again assume the mantle of heroism (this time for all mothers) seems a little much. Even for the great Serena.

A campaign meant to serve as a call to arms to mothers everywhere, and a victory lap after a triumphant return from a difficult pregnancy, has instead produced an unintended consequence: crushing pressure on Serena. How else to account for Serena’s tears as the chaotic second set of her US Open final hurtled to a close?

Naomi Osaka is a 20 year-old, half-Japanese, half-Haitian player. She would be the first to say she’s a beneficiary of Serena’s battles throughout the years, and has been very vocal about what Serena means to her. In many ways, Osaka is the fulfillment of Serena’s destiny, what she’s proudly stood for throughout her career: more opportunity for women of color in a world that’s traditionally kept them out. How ironic that Osaka would later be on the receiving end of 20,000 boos for spoiling Serena’s homecoming at the US Open.

Assessed a code violation for “coaching” during her match, Serena’s confrontation with chair umpire Carlos Ramos quickly turned personal. “I am not a cheater. I don’t cheat to win,” rang Serena’s refrain. Though it was Serena suffering the consequences, the violation was really levied at her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, Ramos explained. At one point, Serena seemed to accept this line of reasoning and both parties retreated respectfully to their corners. But not before Serena offered up this line in her defense.

“I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.”

For those who see every match Serena plays in the context of a greater struggle for gender equality and black women’s empowerment, this line no doubt clarified Serena’s heroism.

Everyone else might have experienced cognitive dissonance. A strong leap has to be made between receiving a violation for something your coach did and feeling like your character is being attacked. The two are related only by technicality, and a player as experienced as Serena knows that.

Unless you consider that on the matter of integrity, Serena feels particularly aggrieved. Earlier in the year, she sounded off on the ITF for what she perceived to be overly zealous drug testing — testing at a level that only she was subject to. Was she being punished for being great? For notching such impressive results so soon after giving birth? For being a great black athlete? All three?

At the US Open, Serena’s grievances go back more than a decade. The Washington Post has impressively collected all of them here.

It’s worth noting that in each circumstance, Serena was losing the match. I point this out not to suggest Serena is just a sore loser (though plenty have reasonably made that argument), but that being on the brink of defeat, in a match she is expected to win, in front of celebrity friends and family, ratchets up the stress on her. Being the heavy favorite in every match you play is its own burden, one that comes with the privilege of being the best in the world.

Heavy is the crown, indeed.

During Saturday’s final, chair umpre Carlos Ramos certainly could have done more to diffuse the situation. His adherence to the rules was technically sound. “Coaching” and verbal abuse are at the umpire’s discretion, and racquet abuse, which resulted in Serena’s second violation, is an automatic penalty. After issuing the first violation for coaching, Ramos didn’t really have a choice but to hand out the second violation once she obliterated her racquet.

The accumulation of all three violations is what led to a game game deduction, a rare but not unprecedented event in a Grand Slam match. Ask John McEnroe.

Where matters get murky is the third infraction.

While Serena’s assertion that men have said worse and never lost a game because of it is 100% correct, the rule clearly states that where it concerns attacking an umpire’s integrity, that’s a punishable offense. Calling Ramos a “liar” and a “thief” who “stole” a point from her (which technically Serena cost herself when she smashed her racquet and got the second violation) certainly counts as an attack on his integrity. That’s the difference between Nick Kyrgios, who himself has received plenty of code violations and point deductions, directing an obscenity in the umpire’s direction, and what Serena said. The former is common obscenity, the latter addresses the umpire’s integrity.

As many have pointed out, Ramos might be in less hot water if he had simply told Serena, explicitly, that if she continued her attack on him after her second violation, it could cost her a game. She might have let it go at that point.

Instead, days later, we’re still debating Serena’s plight over Osaka’s achievement as the first Japanese or Haitian player to win a Slam.

As she listened to the cascade of boos raining down from the rafters on Arthur Ashe stadium Saturday, Osaka lowered her visor over her eyes, like she was covering shame when she should have felt pride. That’s the biggest unintended consequence of all.


Originally published at www.fifteenfortytennis.com.