Since the conclusion of the US Open last Saturday, it’s been difficult to avoid the news surrounding Serena Williams and her apparent meltdown during her loss to Naomi Osaka. From reading the headlights and highlights, it seemed as though that the sanctions that were issued against Serena were warranted. So I couldn’t understand all the uproar that was circulating about the apparent double standards at play.
It began with a warning being issued for having gotten ‘coaching’ during the match from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou via a hand signal. This is a penalty that is inconsistently enforced and while Mouratoglou has since conceded that he was coaching, he added that Williams had not see him make such gestures. Still livid from the accusation of cheating, the tension in the match escalated and after losing a serve, Serena smashed her racket for which she was docked a point.
In response, filled with anger that had been steadily rising, Williams thrust her finger towards the chair umpire Carlos Ramos and called him a ‘thief’ and demanded an apology. In calling Ramos a thief, Williams with issued with her third penalty for verbal abuse and was docked a game.
The arguments between Williams and the umpires overshadowed 20-year-old Osaka’s first grand-slam win, over her hero Serena Williams. During the medal ceremony, Osaka pulled her visor over her eyes and cried as boos echoed around the stadium.
From the coverage of the game, it seemed as though there were only two ways to view the match. Either, Ramos had followed the rules, was warranted in the sanctions he served and Williams had a meltdown that further solidified her persona as a poor sport and an immature, sore loser.
Or, Ramos’s calls were designed to provoke and diminish Williams, that it was further evidence of the sexism engrained in tennis and the double standards that are held against women of colour when it comes to anger and power.
There were certainly instances of racist coverage, for example the Australian newspaper cartoon that depicted Williams as a large, angry woman stamping on her racket while Osaka as a petite blonde woman. The cartoon called on and used historically racist and sexist tropes. This is highlighted by Osaka, a Haitian-Japanese woman, being turned into a white woman to further illustrate the despicable and unacceptable behaviour that Williams had shown just by expressing her deep frustration.
Serena Williams is strong and powerful and has become dominant in women’s tennis. So, the film of her smashing her racket may come across as a childish tantrum but she is certainly not unique in her behaviour. A point that has been raised repeatedly and by Williams herself is that the behaviour that she demonstrated is the same that many of her male counterparts have been demonstrating for years.
Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have all had famous outbursts directed at umpires; McEnroe’s “you cannot be serious” has gone down in pop culture infamy. Former No.1 Andy Roddick tweeted, “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty.”
Last week at the US Open, Alizé Cornet was hit was a code violation for briefly taking her shirt off during her match to turn it back to front. At the French Open, Williams wore a black catsuit that prompted such outrage that the French Open has now changed its dress code to prevent such outfits in the future. There are instances of double standards in sport. Accept it and it will be better for it.
It was acceptable for William to express her anger and frustration in the face of a situation that she believed to be deeply unfair. And nothing that she showed was unique or outrageous or a blight on her character. However, the accusations against Ramos are unfair and appear to be without basis or footing.
The more we cry, the less we are heard. The misconceptions and injustices that circulate Williams’s character and game are symbols of a wider, systemic problem but such a binary approach is neither correct or helpful. We must be careful in our responses to such incidents to prevent adversaries superseding supporters.