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Serena Williams, the US Open, and the Rules of the Game


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What everyone seems to agree on regarding this week’s already infamous US Open women’s final: In the second game of the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos—who was chosen for the match because of his impeccable reputation—gave Serena Williams a Code Violation warning about “coaching,” which is forbidden by the rules governing this match.

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted after the match that he was coaching Williams, and went on to note that everybody does it. Then, when a frustrated Williams smashed and broke her racquet a few games later, the umpire assessed a second Code Violation for racquet abuse, which resulted in a point being awarded to Williams’s opponent, Naomi Osaka, who had dominated the first set and seemed well on her way to victory. Serena, incensed, told the chair umpire, “I don’t cheat! You need to make an announcement. I have never cheated in my life. You owe me an apology.” Then, during the changeover at 4-3—at perhaps the last, best moment at which Williams might muster a counterattack to change the momentum of the match—Williams erupted again at the chair umpire, calling him, among other things, a “thief.” The result of this was a third penalty for verbal abuse and a one-game penalty.

During the lengthy commotion, Osaka stayed far behind her baseline with her back turned to the action, repeatedly bouncing a tennis ball, determined to stay focused on the biggest match of her career. A game later, she served out the championship.

Let’s be clear about that first penalty: The coaching rule, as it exists now, is disingenuous, even ridiculous. Are many players coached on the court? Yes—though I’m not sure they’re coached as obviously as Mouratoglou seemed to direct Williams yesterday. Let’s change that rule—but let’s also be clear that the rule existed yesterday, that Ramos has long been well-known among players for being a strict enforcer, and that Mouratoglou admitted to violating it. But Ramos did not, as Williams asserted, call Williams a cheater or impugn her character. He was enforcing a clearly stated rule of the game, full stop. That was his job, and the court his jurisdiction. Everything after that is framing and interpretation.

As for the notion, raised by many from both inside and outside the world of professional tennis, that Williams was singled out because she’s a woman: Earlier this year, Ramos penalized both Novak Djokovic and Marco Cecchinato for coaching—and the stats from this particular installment of the US Open, at least, don’t support this argument, either: Of the 32 Code Violations called, 23 of them were charged to men and only nine to women.

No one really seems to be arguing the racquet abuse call—she clearly smashed the racquet on the court in frustration, clearly breaking it. Do some players throw racquets or smash racquets and get away with it? Yes—it depends on the severity of the abuse. But breaking a racquet almost always results in a penalty.

Now let’s talk about the verbal abuse penalty. The rulebook states that “verbal abuse is defined as a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.” Again, Williams called Ramos a “thief.” (Earlier, Williams had also threatened Ramos, screaming “You will never, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live! You’re the liar! When are you going to give me my apology? Say it! Say you’re sorry!” It’s been pointed out that Rafael Nadal issued a very similar threat to an umpire a few years ago and received no penalty for it. This is true—but Ramos didn’t penalize Williams for this remark.)

Could Ramos, as many people who know the game and its rules well have suggested, found a kind of Third Path? Yes: He could have—others say should have—found a de-escalating way to inform Williams that she was on the verge of another and more significant penalty if she didn’t stand down. (It’s anyone’s guess, though, how Williams would have reacted to this.)

On the court, Williams complained tearfully and bitterly that “this always happens to me” at the US Open. ESPN announcer Mary Carillo danced around this issue, noting that Williams “has had a rocky road” at the Open over the years. Here’s what they’re both alluding to: In 2009, Williams lost to Kim Clijsters after Williams threatened a lineswoman who called her for a (rarely noted) foot fault. She was fined heavily and threatened with suspension. Two years later, when Williams was assessed with a point penalty, she said to umpire Eva Asderaki, “You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser!” To not acknowledge Williams’s history at the Open in realities and examples rather than innuendo and blithe platitudes is to ignore a troubling history.

Is there sexism in tennis? Without a doubt. Do the rules need to adapt to on-court realities? Yes. But Williams is one of the most visible and highly paid athletes in the world; she’s the public face of Nike, a legend not only of tennis and sports but that rare woman who transcends all of that. She commands a massive fan base that’s devoted and passionate, and she’s brought a lot of the barriers that had held back a lot of young players crashing down, and that’s to her immense and everlasting credit.

But let’s also remember another young woman who, with the odds against her, has risen to a position of dominance in tennis. She has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, she’s 20 years old, and she plays with ice water in her veins—she boasts a string of victories over number-one seeds and number-one-ranked players, and in her only other match against Williams, she beat her then, too. Her name is Naomi Osaka, and she’s the 2018 US Open champion.

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