Sports

In her fury at U.S. Open, Serena Williams starts overdue conversation about double standard in tennis

Serena Williams wasn’t raised to play tennis like everyone
else.

Coached in relative isolation on the public courts of Compton,
Calif., along with her older sister Venus, she learned the game
from self-taught tennis parents who spurned the traditional
junior circuit, believing their daughters’ performances would
one day speak for themselves.

Throughout her 23-year pro career, Williams has done just that
— winning 23 Grand Slam titles, which broke Steffi Graf’s
Open-era record, and four Olympic gold medals among an
unprecedented trophy haul. She also redefined women’s tennis,
ushering in a new era of power, athleticism and skill.

Along the way, she has spoken out when confronted with what she
feels is injustice on the court — not always in the tone the
sport traditionally expects of its female champions. She has
pushed the boundaries with some officials and crossed the line
with others, such as when she threatened to shove a ball down
the throat of a line judge for calling a foot fault during a
semifinal of the 2009 U.S. Open — a violation that cost her a
point, the match and a record US$82,500 fine.

Williams’ latest eruption came in the second set of Saturday’s
U.S. Open final: a finger-pointing tirade at chair umpire
Carlos Ramos that drew her third penalty of the match, cost her
a game when she stood just two games from defeat to 20-year-old
Naomi Osaka — who was by far the better and steadier player —
and, on Sunday, resulted in a $17,000 fine.

Serena
Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S.
Open women’s singles final on Sept. 8.
Kena Betancur /
AFP / Getty Images

After Williams’ rage subsided and the trophies were awarded —
with Williams playing peacemaker, calling on the New York crowd
to quit booing and celebrate Osaka, who wept through what
should have been her shining moment following her 6-2, 6-4
triumph — Williams started an overdue conversation on two
issues that tennis has dodged for too long.

• A rule book that is sorely in need of overhaul and
capriciously applied, particularly on widely violated
infractions such as foot faults and impermissible coaching. (It
was a rarely called coaching violation that triggered the first
strike against Williams on Saturday.)

• A double standard for men and women regarding on-court
decorum, whether that’s Williams getting slapped with her third
violation in Saturday’s final for berating Ramos and calling
him a “thief” for docking her a point or French player Alizé
Cornet being penalized earlier in the tournament for changing
her shirt on-court under sweltering conditions — as is male
players’ right. As Williams put it in her post-match interview:
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m
here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and
for all kinds of stuff … He has never taken a game from a man
because they said ‘thief.’”

The Women’s Tennis Association took up Williams’ cause in a
statement released Sunday night: “The WTA believes that there
should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided
to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to
working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated
the same. We do not believe that this was done (Saturday)
night.”

Former champion Billie Jean King, who used her Hall of Fame
career to advocate for equal rights, thanked Williams via
social media for making the overdue point, tweeting: “When a
woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for
it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there
are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out
this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

Naomi
Osaka (left) pulls her visor down as she stands next to Serena
Williams during the women’s singles trophy ceremony at the U.S.
Open on Sept. 8.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

Williams is hardly without blame in the events that led to her
one-game penalty, but neither is Ramos. As chair umpire, he had
options to defuse what rapidly became an overheated situation
and infuriated fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Instead of giving
Williams what’s known as a “soft warning” after her second
infraction (for racket abuse), he chose to apply the maximum
penalty and dock her a game for what he deemed verbal abuse.

All told, it was a borderline circus in which both Ramos and
Williams played bad actors and the tournament’s champion,
Osaka, was robbed of well-deserved joy.

From this ugly incident, Williams can emerge a champion of a
different sort — one who pushes the boundaries of her sport,
yet again, by shining a light on a double-standard that for
decades has masqueraded as tradition and hidden behind words
such a “respect” and “decorum.”

By calling out Ramos for penalizing her for language far less
vulgar than profanities hurled at officials by Roger Federer
and bad boys John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors before him,
Williams has forced tennis to examine why it doesn’t accord
women the same latitude as men to display raw, unvarnished and
often ugly competitive fury.

“The sport definitely has a double standard when it comes to
perception,” said former top-five player James Blake, 38, now
tournament director of the Miami Open. “For example, women are
vilified for speaking up when you look at the headlines; men
can be considered ‘passionate’ or ‘fighters’ in similar
situations. But I didn’t believe (the double standard)
stretched to actual rules. That hope was dashed this U.S. Open
when I saw the ruling against Cornet and then this happening to
Serena.”

Blake went on to say in an email exchange Sunday that he wasn’t
condoning bad behaviour, noting that Williams deserved the
second penalty for breaking her racket. But he characterized
the verbal-abuse penalty as a “judgment call that was far too
harsh and unnecessary.”

“If Carlos Ramos felt that she was taking it too far, he could
easily say that as a warning and let her know that if she
continued down that path, it would be a penalty,” noted Blake.
“That’s a courtesy afforded to almost every pro, but for some
reason not to the greatest player of all time on the biggest
stage? That’s concerning to me.”

Tennis has long had separate rules and expectations for women —
most of which, throughout the sport’s history, have been
proudly highlighted as matters of tradition.

There was no pay at all for victor Maud Watson in Wimbledon’s
first event for Ladies in 1884. She won silver flower basket
worth 20 guineas; her runner-up took home a silver mirror and
brush set. While male players of the era wore slacks, women
competed in long skirts and corsets.

The sport evolved, of course, with time and common sense. But
meaningful gains by women — particularly as it relates to equal
pay — were demanded and earned rather that freely granted.

King, who earned 750 British pounds (roughly $969) for her 1968
Wimbledon singles title to Rod Laver’s 2,000 pounds (the
equivalent of $2,584) for the men, started the campaign for
equal pay. It was Venus Williams who delivered the compelling
closing argument, via a 2006 editorial in the London Times,
that persuaded Wimbledon to join the sport’s three other majors
in awarding equal prize money the following year.

In other ways, Serena has been the force behind change in
tennis.

Through the power of her groundstrokes and service blasts, she
has forced her competitors to be stronger, faster, fitter and
more skilled.

Serena
Williams is shown after her defeat to Naomi Osaka in the women’s
singles final at the U.S. Open on Sept. 8.
Sarah Stier /
Getty Images

She has expanded notions of what female tennis champions look
like and how they should dress — but only, as she explained in
a 2016 interview with Common for ESPN’s The Undefeated, after
learning to embrace her own muscular physique.

“There was a time when I didn’t feel incredibly comfortable
about my body because I felt like I was too strong I had to
take a second and think, ‘Who says I’m too strong? This body
has enabled me to be the greatest player that I can be,’” said
Williams, who earlier this summer was criticized by French
Tennis Federation officials for wearing a body-hugging leotard
that also served the medical purpose of preventing a recurrence
of life-threatening blood clots they deemed “disrespectful” to
the game.

Williams has evolved in other ways over her career, from
19-year-old U.S. Open champion focused on amassing more titles
to 36-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam champion and mother who is
trying, as an athlete, to speak to something larger about
women. To push the boundaries of what is possible for new moms,
all moms and all women striving to achieve on playing fields in
which the rules are set by men.

It’s easy to take issue with her behaviour in the U.S. Open
final, destroying her racket, raging at the chair umpire and
staging a tantrum that, intentionally or not, could have
derailed a young opponent who had soundly outplayed her.

But tennis is better for her excellence, as the women’s final’s
overnight TV ratings attest (up 32 per cent from the 2017 U.S.
Open women’s final, contested by Americans Sloane Stephens and
Madison Keys, and 79 per cent higher than the previous year,
when a Germany’s Angelique Kerber faced Czech Karolina
Pliskova).

And in calling out the sport’s double standard on acceptable
on-court passion (and rage), Williams makes a point that
demands addressing.

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