NEW YORK – The gap between social media and real life was glaringly evident Saturday night, when Serena Williams essentially bombed out of the US Open final against neophyte Naomi Osaka.
The virtual truth, as always, was cut and dried on one side or another.
The truth, as always, had multiple shades of gray.
If you’re a Serena fan, you defended her to the death. If you don’t like her – and she’s one of the most polarizing figures in sport in part because she’s one of the most famous and accomplished, while being a strong African-American woman – you slammed her unapologetically.
Williams lost her cool and couldn’t regain it in the heat of the moment. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos, whose track record shows he’s one of the few not reluctant to apply the rules of tennis as they should be applied, did his job.
They were two intractable forces that, when they collided in a major final, led to what happened Saturday night.
It may not have been the most unpleasant finish to a Grand Slam final (Williams owns that one, too, against Kim Clijsters back in 2009). But it was up there.
“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
What set Williams off, and what she never fully recovered from, was the coaching violation called against her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, early in the second set.
It was only the first step of the penalty process: a warning.
But it struck a nerve with Williams. And given her history, you can completely understand where she was coming from.
Throughout her brilliant career, Williams has always been dogged by suggestions that she “cheated”. Her detractors want to think that because she’s a strong, fabulous, muscular female, she must be getting there by artificial means. And yet, Williams is tested often, and has never come up positive. Over 20 years. But the campaign persists.
She is also one of the few women not to avail themselves of the on-court coaching option available during regular WTA Tour events.
But in the heat of the moment, Williams made an illogical leap. As far as we know, she’d never been called for Mouratoglou sending along signals before. Which doesn’t mean it’s never happened. All the coaches do it – Mouratoglou included. And he admitted during a live interview shortly afterwards that he had. He knows that there’s a camera on him, so there wasn’t much point in denying it.
What’s more, Williams may well have seen him. She referred to Mouratoglou giving her “the thumbs up”, which may have been what she saw from her vantage point, or how she chose to present it to the chair umpire. But however clearly she saw it, the advice was something she immediately began to implement.
Still … a coaching violation is against the coach, not the player. It doesn’t matter if the player saw the signals or heard the advice (or whatever form it takes). It is not an accusation of cheating against the player.
But Williams would not be dissuaded.
On the next changeover, Ramos did his very best to defuse the situation, to assure Williams that he was not, in fact, accusing her of cheating. She seemed satisfied.
But somewhere, in her head, she seemed to think that meant the code violation, and warning, were rescinded. Which would prove relevant later on.
Shortly after that, Williams sabotaged herself with an impressive trashing of her Wilson racket. Williams had been up a break in the second set at 3-1. But she double-faulted twice in that game to surrender the break.
Second code violation: point penalty.
Williams pleaded ignorance on that one, thinking it would only be a warning.
“This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems,” she said to Ramos. “You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her. You owe me an apology.”
And then … it got ugly
After Osaka held for 4-3, Williams went back at Ramos on the next changeover.
“I explained that to you (the non-coaching). For you to attack my character. … You’re attacking my character. You owe me an apology. And you will never, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar,” Williams said.
And she wouldn’t let it go.
“When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. SAY IT. Say you’re sorry. … Then don’t talk to me. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating?”
And then, the coup de grâce.
“You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too,” she said.
And that was enough. Ramos assessed another code violation. Which, given it was the third, now came with a game penalty.
The common narrative out there was that she was unfairly docked a full game merely for calling Ramos a “thief” – when many other (male) players have done far worse, with far more four-letter words. (Williams, a notorious potty mouth, showed remarkable restraint in that regard considering how angry she was).
But to cherry-pick that argument is to ignore that most often, the unacceptable language comes as a first violation. Therefore, a warning. Or, at worst, a second violation for a penalty point.
Had Williams not already had two strikes on her, it would have been the same for her.
Rarely does it escalate to a being the third violation. If it does, and the chair umpire assesses a violation for umpire abuse (which they almost always will), it would be a game penalty – for any player.
Williams was not singled out in this regard.
Calling the referee
Williams called the referee and the supervisor, Brian Earley and Donna Kelso, to plead her case after the game penalty.
She then pulled out the heaviest artillery.
“This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. To give me a point – to lose a game for saying that, is not fair. It’s really not. You know how many other men do things, they do much worse than that,” she told them, near tears. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they’re men, it doesn’t happen to them.
“Because I’m woman, you’re going to take this away from me? You know that’s not right. I know you can’t admit it, but you know it’s not right. I get the rules, I’m just saying it’s not right. … And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I played, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
On the final changeover, just before Osaka was to serve for the match at 5-4, Williams returned to the corner of the court to have another go with the officials. Her longtime agent, Jill Smoller had already been there to plead Williams’ case. Which is extraordinary in itself.
The sexism argument
The first argument put forth by many of Williams’ defenders was that the coaching rule is not universally applied, and so is unfair. That may be true. But it’s also a rule. And Ramos is known to apply it unlike many of his colleagues who prefer to avoid the confrontation. He even docked Williams’ sister Venus for it at the 2016 French Open.
The other is that it was a blatant case of sexism.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for everyday sexism in all walks of life. Tennis is hardly immune.
But if you’re going to try to make that argument in this case based upon the fact that Williams is a woman and Ramos is a man – or that men wouldn’t get the same sanction in the same situation – you’re not on solid ground.
Just because Williams pulled that out – both on court, and in her press conference afterwards – doesn’t make it fact.
If there were multiple examples of women abusing chair umpires in far less vulgar fashion than the male players, and yet being excessively penalized in relation to them, you could build a case.
But it rarely happens. The women argue, but it almost never escalates to this point. Williams stands nearly alone in that regard. So there really aren’t comparables.
The only argument she could make would be that she was unfairly singled out, personally. But there’s no history with Ramos in that regard. Williams even conceded during her press conference that he “has always been a great umpire.”
And nothing Ramos Saturday night did was out of line with how he chairs every match he works. You could see that he did his best to try to calm Williams down.
But at a certain point, when a player is accusing you of things you didn’t do (such as “attacking her character”), is calling you both a liar and a thief and demanding an apology multiple times when you’ve done no wrong, there’s a line that gets crossed.
By the above definition in the Grand Slam rulebook, Williams crossed that line. A few times.
Unfortunately, because Williams already had two code violations, the penalty was severe.
Williams was on a losing track
Williams, seeking to make history with her 24th major title, denied that opportunity at Wimbledon back in July by Angelique Kerber, was losing.
Not only was she losing, she was being beaten by a better player on the day. There’s a distinction there, in that if Williams were beating herself, she would have every hope that she could turn it around by simply playing better, playing to her legendary level.
But that’s not what was happening. In fact, Williams was having to change her game. She was having to try Plan B and Plan C to try to find something what would hurt Osaka. The 20-year-old major final rookie was playing flawless tennis. She was earning it.
We’ve all seen Williams when she’s behind, and fighting with everything she has to try to come back. It’s loud. It’s even desperate at times. She is the toughest competitor the women’s game has ever seen. There is simply no one in her class.
But this isn’t the same Serena as before she had Olympia. Even she admits it; if she had to put a number on it, she’d put it at 50-60 per cent.
So she doesn’t have the same tools to fight with – not at the moment, at least. And that has to be a source of frustration for her as well. She knows exactly what she’s capable of doing at full Serena-strength. But she’s not quite sure she’s got at this particular stage of her career.
And after two weeks of fighting through some of the most challenging weather ever at the US Open, winning six matches and dealing with all of the other distractions, she was tired. And she couldn’t keep her cool.
Kindness to Osaka
The trophy ceremony was as awkward as they come.
Most of the fans in the largest crowd in tennis probably didn’t even fully understand what had happened. Ramos’s announcements largely were drowned out by the noise inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe, and the very vocal Serena fans were causing a ruckus.
To her credit, Williams reached out to Osaka at the net with it was over, and gave her a big hug. She also tried to quiet the crowd down to give Osaka her due. And she was comforting on the stage when the 20-year-old was overcome with understandable emotion after all that had come before.
So Williams did what she could.
But the drama was all of her own doing. And as agent Smoller led the inappropriate applause in the press conference room when Williams was done saying what she had to say, she has no one to blame but herself.
The fines, in the end, turned out to be a rather manageable $17,000 US, $10,000 of which was for the verbal abuse. The racket smash cost her $3,000, and Mouratoglou’s coaching moves the other $4,000.
It could have been (probably should have been) much worse. In fact, it has been worse.
Flashback to 2009
Williams was fined $175,000 following an investigation after the 2009 US Open semifinal, which featured her pointed threats towards line umpire Shino Tsurubuchi.
Tsurubuchi had called her for a foot fault, on a second serve, when she was two points away from defeat.
(Note that the same two officials, Earley and Kelso, were also on court for that one. They look a lot younger 🙂 )
The fine ended up being cut to $82,500 after Williams committed no further infractions over the next two years.
In that instance, Williams also received a point penalty, to put her down match point at the time. The subsequent advance towards Tsurubuchi earned her the game penalty – and gave the match to opponent Kim Clijsters.
Here’s the statement she put out the day after that one.
“Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience.”
(Screenshots from ESPN/TSN)