Column: The Serena Williams controversy extends far beyond that final match

In this Saturday, Sept. 8 file photo, Serena Williams, right, talks with referee Brian Earley during the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, in New York. (Adam Hunger, File/AP)

In this Saturday, Sept. 8 file photo, Serena Williams, right, talks with referee Brian Earley during the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, in New York. (Adam Hunger, File/AP)

“Thief.” That single, accusatory word cost Serena Williams a point, then a game, then a match. It was the point in which all hell broke loose, in which chair umpire Carlos Ramos took it upon himself to dictate the flow of the match and unfairly overshadow 20-year-old Naomi Osaka’s historic victory. Despite the calamity of what unfolded, Osaka simply out-played Williams the whole match and deserves all the praise, attention and recognition she can get. She is the future of women’s tennis.

But unfortunately, this match will forever be mired by the yelling, the accusing and the finger-pointing that took place in the crux of the second set. The penalties that were issued by Ramos were overkill for a Grand Slam final, and the issue of sexism and double standards arose again.

The whole situation is extremely difficult to unpack, but here’s the gist:

  • Serena was issued a warning for accepting coaching during the match, but after a civil conversation with Ramos that ended with Serena saying “I didn’t cheat” and Ramos replying with “I know that,” leading Serena to believe that the warning had been rescinded.

  • With Serena up 3-1 in the second set and poised to go up 4-1, she hit a backhand into the net to bring Osaka back into the game, who proceeded to break back and regain control. She slammed her racket on the ground in frustration and was docked a point, putting Osaka up 15-0 before she even served.

  • When walking back to the deuce side, Serena was confused by the score; she didn’t hear the violation announced by Ramos. She went back over to the chair to ask what was going on, and as the debate became more heated, the crowd backed Serena.

  • Osaka held and then broke Serena’s serve to put her up 4-3. Serena went back to the umpire and continued to dispute the call, and she concluded with saying, “And you stole a point from me, you’re a thief, too.” Ramos then issued her a code violation for verbal abuse, resulting in a game penalty, putting Osaka up 5-3.

It’s a series of events filled with controversy and confusion. It’s hard for players to hear the chair umpire on the court with the boisterous crowd and the roof closed, as ESPN analyst and former player Mary Joe Fernandez pointed out during the broadcast as it was unfolding. Players cannot receive coaching during the match. Slamming your racket is a code violation. Verbally abusing an umpire is a code violation. But what tennis are we all watching where these rules are followed to a tee? Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to his coaching because it happens all the time. Male players have said and done far worse to chair umpires and nothing happened. John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal and Jimmy Connors come to mind, among many others that were compiled in a lovely tweet thread.

It’s not that Ramos, a notoriously strict umpire, was overtly sexist; we’ll never know what he was thinking in that moment. Ramos overstepped his boundaries and changed the outcome of the match, which isn’t what he’s there for—even US Open men’s champion Novak Djokovic agrees.

But putting our focus on Ramos is wrong. He’s the mouthpiece for a larger issue—that tennis has a systematic problem with its tradition and its treatment of women players that goes beyond what happened with Serena on Saturday.

In any non-Grand Slam tournaments, women can console with their coaches once per set during matches while men are not permitted to receive coaching at all. Men must win three sets to capture the match in Grand Slam tournaments, while women must only win two. And apparently, they can’t take their shirt off in the middle of a game because they accidentally put it on backwards (the USTA later clarified that this isn’t actually a code violation), but Djokovic can relax and flash a cheeky smile to the camera with his shirt off and get a warm reception from the crowd. And this isn’t the first instance of tennis policing how women wear clothes; Serena was recently banned from wearing her catsuit in the French Open because it didn’t “respect the game or the place,” and the move was widely—and rightly—criticized.

Not to mention the fact that Serena was fined $17,000 for her comments, which is even more ridiculous than the in-game penalties. Take this example of when John McEnroe slammed a ball in the stands, called the umpire a “jerk” and hitting a soda can with his racket during a changeover and was fined only $2,100 in 1984, which is equivalent to about $5,025 in today’s dollars.

Rules like this are unnecessary and unfair. There’s no reason women can receive coaching and men can’t, that men must play an extra set while women don’t. That is sexist, plain and simple. These are rules that plague a sport that has featured some of the best athletes and unnecessarily holds men to higher standards, acting as if women aren’t athletic enough to reach them.

In her Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post, tennis legend and pioneer for women’s rights Billie Jean King said, “If tennis would catch up with the 21st century and allow coaching on every point, the situation on the court would never have escalated to the level of absurdity that it did.”

“Every player, after all, still has to play the match — she has to execute on every point, and she should never be held responsible for the actions of a coach. Coaching happens all the time, at all levels of tennis. So why not just allow it?”

King nicely encapsulates another issue: How absurd the initial warning on Serena was. That warning was the catalyst for the chaos that ensued and could have so easily been avoided if tennis took a good hard look at what the rules are and how they’re enforcing them. They’re inconsistent, even more so for women. If you’re going to call something as small as a coaching violation in a situation as big as the US Open final, you better make sure those violations are being called at all other Grand Slams, the Masters 1000, at the ITF circuits.

Serena has spent her entire career fighting for women’s rights in tennis and beyond and serving as a role model to young women who want to excel in male-dominated fields. She recognizes this and said in the press conference after the final on Saturday that, “I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves, and they want to be a strong woman. And they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

Whether you believe Serena was a victim of sexism or not, this much is clear: These rules are outdated and unfairly enforced, and Serena was caught up in a situation that was not her fault and should never have happened. Women are held to a higher degree of professionalism while being treated as less capable than men. Want the issue of sexism and unequal treatment to stop plaguing tennis? Just change the rules and even up the playing field. For real.


Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.