Serena Williams: The Art of Losing

Saturday, September 8, should have been the happiest day of Naomi Osaka’s life. Realising a dream in beating her idol Serena Williams and capturing her first grand slam title, nothing but adulation should have been heaped on the 20-year-old Japanese phenom. The reality of the situation, however, was far more bittersweet. Despite playing some of the best tennis of her career to overwhelm Williams, her victory was unfairly tainted by a now notorious series of events that have painted tennis in the most unflattering light.

The aftermath has divided public opinion immensely. While some exalted Williams for her strength in the face of perceived male dominance, others have chastised her antics and lamented the overshadowing of Osaka’s deserved moment. The reality lies in an oft-neglected middle ground, where a murky combination of factors created a situation that could and should have been avoided.

What happened?

The drama began at the start of the second set, when Serena was charged with a code violation for coaching. Immediately taking offence, the #17 seed marched up to chair umpire Carlos Ramos to defend herself, stating that she does not cheat.

The set continued and after dropping a crucial game, Serena smashed her racquet; a second warning was then issued with a point penalty for the incident. Enraged, Williams demanded an apology from the official, calling him a “liar” and a “thief”. This, however, incurred more repercussion as the umpire called Serena up on verbal abuse and penalised her an entire game. At 5–3 down, a visibly distraught Williams accused Ramos of sexism, stating that “there are a lot of men that do a lot worse”.

Serena’s fate was all but sealed. Osaka composed herself and served out the match. In a sea of boos and tears, she lifted her trophy while apologising to the partisan crowd for winning. Her moment seemingly tarnished, as the atmosphere of Serena’s audacious attitude hung heavy around the stadium.

Was the umpire at fault?

Carlos Ramos went entirely by the book. When reviewed, every violation issued was warranted. Patrick Mouratoglou did attempt to coach from the stands (confirming this afterwards), Serena did smash her racquet and she did verbally abuse an official by implying dishonesty. Three strikes; three penalties. The ITF have supported this, releasing a statement saying his decisions were “in accordance with the relevant rules” and that he “acted at all times with professionalism and integrity”.

The problem essentially comes down to inconsistencies within umpiring. Some chair officials invoke the rules a lot more stringently than others, thus creating precedent for almost every situation. We only have to look at the bizarre scenes in Nick Kyrgios’s second round match to see this. After visibly tanking, the Australian received, what can only be perceived as, a pep talk from umpire Mohamed Lahyani. It showed clear bias and was far above the call of duty. It leads to immense confusion in terms of what a player can ‘get away with’, especially in the face of umpires like Ramos, who have a penchant for taking a hard line with all players. He famously clocked Nadal for his rampant abuse of time in-between points and even issued Andy Murray with a code violation for calling him stupid.

It’s true to say that on another night, with another umpire, Serena would have gotten away with the infractions and the story would be entirely different. But this doesn’t excuse her reaction and, as it stands, this incident has really only served to highlight irregularities within the officiating of the game.

Was sexism at play?

In this particular situation with Carlos Ramos, no. However, Serena was also not entirely wrong in her assertion that male players have gotten away with saying more disrespectful things in the past.

In a sport so steeped in inequality, hardly a tournament goes by without an incident that reinforces the pervasiveness of sexism. Consider Alizé Cornet being issued a violation for changing her shirt on court, Wimbledon’s rescheduling of the women’s final to accommodate a men’s semi-final and Bernard Giudicelli’s comments about Serena’s catsuit — these are all cases which have happened in only the last few months. In this atmosphere, it would not have been a stretch for Williams to feel like she was being targeted based on her gender, especially when there are known examples of leniency for similar outbursts.

Again, this comes down to a lack of consistency within umpiring. While there are instances of men (and women) getting away with bad behaviour, there are also examples of them being effectively punished. John McEnroe was famously defaulted from his quarter-final match at the 1990 Australian Open for unsportsmanlike conduct, Brydan Klein was penalised a game for yelling “stupid” earlier this year and even Tim Henman was disqualified from a Wimbledon doubles match for accidentally hitting a ball girl. While there is rampant sexism in the sport that needs to be fully addressed, conflating it with an umpire who was just doing his job properly is slightly problematic.

Serena Williams

This is not the first time that Serena has courted controversy at the US Open.

Back in 2009, after receiving a foot-fault at a crucial point in the semi-finals, she threatened to shove a tennis ball down a lines-person’s throat. Serena argued but was rightly penalised by umpire Louise Engzell and the match went to Kim Clijsters minutes later.

Fast forward to the final of 2011 where Williams faced an inspired Sam Stosur. In an attempt to turn the match around and buoy herself up, Serena screamed “come on” after cracking a forehand for what she assumed was a winner. Stosur, however, still had a play on the ball and so Serena was issued a point penalty for hindrance. While a fair call for all to see, she took issue and went on an intense tirade against umpire Eva Asderaki, calling her a “hater” and accusing her of being “unattractive on the inside”.

Serena Williams embodies power on a tennis court. With every backhand she swats away, every thunderous ace that’s hurtled down, every fist-pump and shriek, Serena Williams aims to dominate and stamp authority. As the greatest player of all time, she commands a court like no other; her commitment to winning is unrivalled and her passion for the fight is awe-inspiring. This level of pure emotion does not come without consequence however, and it’s her Jekyll and Hyde persona that needs to be checked. Serena has herself spoken of this troubling alter-ego, stating in 2013 that: “I think that’s a girl that gets really crazy on the tennis court and just fights really hard [but] just takes it a little too far sometimes”.

The personality of a player only adds to the theatre of the occasion, but only when it doesn’t affect an opponent. Osaka was dealing with a lot more than just a tennis match at Arthur Ashe stadium and she handled the situation with aplomb. Serena is her hero and has a wealth of experience behind her, so it was slightly disappointing to see the American star continue a tradition of disrespect against officials merely doing their job. While she admirably tried to give the spotlight back to Naomi during the acceptance speech, showing both maturity and awareness, the damage had been done.

Final thoughts

It’s not often that Serena sees herself outclassed in almost every aspect of her game, especially in a coveted grand slam final, but this is exactly what Naomi Osaka was able to do on Saturday night. In a display of controlled, accurate strength, Osaka weathered a veritable storm from all angles to emerge victorious in one of the most controversial matches in history. She simply played better and remained more composed.

Serena Williams has had to battle against every adversity imaginable to become a great champion on and off the court, but she is not infallible. Old demons certainly came to haunt her and while the incident served to highlight a number of important issues in sport, it just wasn’t the time.

The match has been irrevocably marred, leaving us not with celebration but food for thought. Tennis deserves more steadfast umpiring. Serena and the entire WTA deserve to be treated exactly like their male counterparts. But make no mistake, Naomi Osaka deserved this grand slam victory.