Published 11:39 AM EDT Sep 9, 2018
The chaos and controversy that enveloped the Serena Williams-Naomi Osaka US Open final will be discussed for as long as people talk about sports. There’s something for everyone in this one. We all have our opinions, and rest assured, everyone is giving them.
But, as time passes, there are only two questions that will really matter:
Was Serena Williams treated differently than a man would have been treated for doing exactly what she did and saying exactly what she said?
And, if so, why? Is it solely sexism, the easiest and most logical answer? Or is it more than that? The chair umpire is the one person on earth not talking about this, so we are left to wonder: is it because Williams is a woman? An African-American woman? Is it because she’s so successful, so outspoken, such an important presence in our culture? What is it?
As we look back on what happened Saturday night as Williams was going for her historic 24th Grand Slam title, you can believe her behavior was wrong yet still believe there’s a terrible double standard for women when compared to men in tennis. Those thoughts are not mutually exclusive.
More: Instead of triumphing, Serena diminished herself with behavior at US Open
More: Naomi Osaka shows grace, class in first Grand Slam victory
It’s a fact that the sport that gave us John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors and so many other bad boys has tolerated without penalty far worse behavior than the language Williams used Saturday evening. She said as much in her defense during the match and after, and others quickly agreed with her.
“I will admit I have said worse and not gotten penalized,” James Blake, the former top-ranked U.S. male tennis player, wrote on Twitter Saturday night. “And I’ve also been given a 'soft warning' by the ump where they tell you knock it off or I will have to give you a violation. He should have at least given her that courtesy.”
Mardy Fish, another former American men's No. 1, also went on Twitter after the match:
“Two ridiculous calls today. I can promise you, that’s not coaching, racquet abuse no doubt, but the verbal abuse??? It’s the US Open Final!!!”
And Patrick McEnroe on Sunday’s Good Morning America: “It has to be said that she has a point when it comes to gender bias. I believe that a chair umpire who’s a man, against another man, would have said, whether it’s Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, ‘Listen, you’ve got to pipe down now. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve gotten two violations. If you get another one, you’re getting a game penalty.’ Nobody wants to see that happen, especially in the US Open final.”
So it appears the first question has an easy answer: Williams was treated differently than a male player would have been, especially at such an important moment in the match and, because of what was at stake, in the sport’s history.
We all know that old boys’ clubs still exist, but it’s especially telling that this happened at the US Open, the first Grand Slam tournament to pay women equal prize money, starting all the way back in 1973, decades before the other three majors did. If the US Open can’t penalize (or not penalize) male and female players equally, then probably no one can.
The powers that be in tennis have some significant work ahead of them on this one. They could start where it all began, by checking in with Billie Jean King. She’s the one who successfully fought for equal pay at the US Open. Saturday night, she said this on Twitter:
“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, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard.”
This has been an instructive couple of weeks to chart the progress women are making in a sport that arguably treats them the best of any of the high-profile sports that men and women play at an elite level. And I don’t mean instructive in a good way.
The French Open banned Williams’ catsuit, which she wore as a message of empowerment for new mothers, while the US Open penalized Alize Cornet for quickly changing her shirt on court after she realized it was on backwards. The backlash against that one was so severe that officials quickly apologized and adjusted their rules.
And then chair umpire Carlos Ramos decided to do what a referee in any sport should never do: insert himself in dramatic fashion into a major sporting event rather than diffusing the situation and letting the players play.
First, he issued a warning to Williams for being “coached” from the stands, something that apparently every coach in the game does and gets away with, with no warnings — except for Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou during the US Open final. Think about that for a moment.
When Williams later smashed her racket in anger, she appropriately received a penalty — then her second penalty — and therefore, the loss of a point. If there had been no coaching penalty, the racket abuse would have been her first offense and wouldn’t have cost her a point.
Then came the big one: Williams’ anger getting the better of her, calling Ramos a “thief” for taking the point from her. It was not a good moment for Williams, but tennis being tennis, does that even rank in the top 50 of terrible things said by a player to an umpire in the heat of battle in the history of the game — including by many players, long since retired, who are revered to this day?
To Ramos it sure did, and he made the unprecedented decision of taking an entire game from Williams in the crucial second set of a Grand Slam final. Would he have dared do this to Federer or Nadal in a similar situation? We weren’t born yesterday. We know the answer. Of course not.
So why? Why is the greatest player in history not given the leeway far less-accomplished male players say they consistently receive? Is it simply because she’s a woman? African-American? Controversial?
Is it because she is in many ways so much bigger than the game now? Beloved by thousands who aren’t normally tennis fans? Taking a stand on issues involving women and race?
Is it all those things? Some? Most?
Tennis, it’s your serve. It’s time to answer. What is it, and, more important, how do you stop it?