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Serena Williams vs. Double Standards and Sexism

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The stage was set for a historic 2018 US Open Women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday. The match took place exactly 50 years to the day when the stadium’s namesake defeated Tom Okker of The Netherlands to become the first black man to win the coveted title.

I’m sure that most envisioned the story ending with Serena hoisting the winner’s trophy over her head after making history with her 7th US Open and 24th Grand Slam title.

But two things conspired to disrupt that fairytale ending. 1) Osaka had a different ending in mind when she stepped on center court and 2) a series of unfortunate events led to Osaka’s name being erased on the scoreboard and replaced with Serena Williams vs. Double Standards and Sexism.

In that match there wasn’t a clear cut winner – just degrees of losers. It’s very unfortunate and what should have gone down in history as a remarkable event befitting of the anniversary on which it happened, will now go down into the annals of infamy.

For the record, let’s take a look at the evidence and facts surrounding the case of Serena Williams vs. Double Standards and Sexism.

It would seem that this all started when chair umpire, Carlos Ramos issued an initial code violation to Williams for coaching. However, we must go back nine years to the 2009 US Open Women’s Semifnal where Williams faced Kim Clijsters. There is a precedent in behavior for Williams that is germane to her charges of Double Standards and Sexism.

In the hard fought match against Williams, Clijsters won the first set 6-4 and was up 6-5 in the second. Williams, the defending champion, was down 15-30 in her service game. A foot fault was called against her on her second serve pushing the score to 15-40 giving Clijsters two championship points.

Incensed, Serena launched into an expletive laced tirade against the line judge allegedly telling her: “I swear to God, I’m f——— going to take this f——— ball and shove it down your f——— throat, you hear that? I swear to God.”

It’s important to point out that both the line judge and the chair umpire were women.

Since Williams had been assessed a code violation for racket abuse earlier in the match, the outburst cost her another code violation which awarded Clijsters a point and thus the title since this occurred on championship point. Ironically Clijsters who was coming back from maternity leave after having given birth 18 month earlier to her daughter Jada, became the first unseeded player and the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong in 1980.

Now back to 2018.

Early in the second set, Williams was assessed a code violation for coaching to which she replied to the chair umpire, Ramos,

“…I can understand where you may have thought that, but just know that I never cheat.”

That line is very telling because she basically admitted that something happened that could have been construed or misconstrued as “coaching”. Since Ramos is not a mind reader and did not know exactly what Serena’s state of mind was at the time, you could argue that it wasn’t unreasonable for him to suspect that coaching was indeed taking place. Whether or not he should have showed restraint and ignored what he suspected is not really the issue. It is a rule and he has the discretion to make that call.

Unbeknownst to Ramos, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to Pam Shriver during an interview during the match on ESPN: “I was coaching but I don’t think she looked at me. “Her coach [Sascha Bajin] was coaching the whole time, too. Everyone is doing it 100% of the time.”

Was the fact that he made the call a prima facia case for sexism? I’ll let that stand as a rhetorical question for the time being.

This violation was not punitive, but it did set the stage for any subsequent violations to be as such, so in essence future penalties could have been avoided through the employment of restraint.

In between games, Williams on a couple of occasions demanded an apology from Ramos for impugning her integrity by calling the coaching violation, because according to her, “I’d rather lose than cheat.”

By demanding an apology from him she was doing the same thing to him that she wad accusing him of doing to her. She was impugning his integrity, a hallmark virtue of a chair umpire.

After breaking Osaka in the second set to go up 3-1, Serena fails to hold her serve and now they are back on serve at 3-2. In frustration at the end of the game, Williams slams her racket to the ground and is assessed another code violation by Ramos for racket abuse resulting in a point penalty for Osaka to start off the next game. Starting off her serve at 15-0, Osaka holds her serve to even the second set at 3-3.

The third code violation came after the seventh game, with Osaka leading 4-3, when Williams during the break called Ramos “a thief” for stealing a point from her. According to the rules, that resulted in a loss of a game, which left Osaka one service hold away from her first US Open title which she completed shortly thereafter.

So let’s review the facts for Serena vs. Double Standards and Sexism.

Carlos Ramos called a coaching violation on Serena and her coach to which Serena admitted could have been “misconstrued” as coaching but she doesn’t cheat, to which her coach in essence said to Pam Shriver, oh yeah we “cheat”, I mean coach all the time – it’s OK though because everybody does it.

There are claims that this is unfair because in a match of this magnitude that those kind of calls should not be made. Let’s just say for argument’s sake that Serena was being coached, how fair is that to a 20 year old upstart trying to make her mark on the tennis world on the biggest stage imaginable.

Out of frustration, Serena slams her racket to the ground and breaks it. Is the racket abuse violation an unfair call? Is that sexist? Is there a double standard there?

It may be in general but the data shows that Ramos is an equal opportunity thorn in the side of players, According to The Guardian,

“Ramos also has a reputation as a stickler for the rules. At last year’s French Open, he drew criticism from the eventual champion, Rafael Nafal after they argued during a fourth-round match. Ramos gave Nadal two warnings for slow play, and the Spaniard felt he was being unfairly treated.”

Novak Djokovic had an issue with Ramos during a match with Kei Nishikori at this year’s Wimbledon tournament. Djokovic accused Ramos of a “double standard” because he was called for a racket abuse violation when Nishikori threw his racket “and [Ramos] said he didn’t see it.”

So that’s two people accusing Ramos of a double standard, but unfortunately for Serena, Djokovic’s claim doesn’t help hers it actually hurts it.

So far there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence of Ramos’ actions following a double standard or being sexist in the least. If anything he is guilty of being a stickler for the rules no matter how high the stakes of the match.

So let’s now look at the third code violation which cost Williams a game.

Williams accused Ramos of taking a game away from her for calling him a “thief”, but to be fair and accurate he called a verbal abuse code violation whose cumulative penalty resulted in her losing a game. There’s a difference.

So is the reason that Ramos assessed a third code violation for verbal abuse simply because Serena called Ramos a thief. Could it have been the cumulative effect of Williams berating and badgering him to issue her the apology that she was “owed”.

Was she owed an apology ? Is she entitled to an apology from an umpire?

Speaking of apologies, let’s go back to the 2009 post-match press conference after the match against Kim Clijsters . At that press conference Williams was asked if she planned on apologizing to the line judge that she had verbally assaulted and allegedly threatened, Williams said,

“An apology from me? How many people yell at linespeople? Players, athletes get frustrated. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that happen,” Williams said. “All year I’ve never been foot-faulted, and then suddenly in this tournament they keep calling foot faults.

“I said something that I guess they gave me a point penalty for. Unfortunately it was on match point. I used to have a real temper, and I’ve got a lot better. So I know you don’t believe me, but I used to be worse. Yes, yes, indeed.”

Williams did apologize a few days later after being fined $10,000 for her conduct.

I’m sure Serena has matured since then and is a much better person having gone through that ordeal, but one thing doesn’t add up to me in this equation.

If she wasn’t willing to apologize to a woman that she unequivocally did wrong, after having a little bit of distance between herself and the incident, what makes her think she can demand and is owed an apology from a chair umpire in the middle of a match.

The bottomline on all of this is that there is not sufficient evidence to convict or even indict Ramos on the charges of the Double Standard and Sexism.

The game of tennis may be guilty of these crimes, but that doesn’t mean that Ramos is a co-conspirator in this case.

We have to be very careful when we start accusing people of things like being sexist or racist without sufficient evidence.

Is the world sexist? Yes it can be, quite often.

Is the world racist? Ditto.

But, just because the world can be sexist, racist and a bunch of other ists and isms, doesn’t mean that everyone in the world is of that ilk.

One of Serena’s constant refrains during the match was that she was being treated unfairly.

The world and life are inherently unfair.

Was she treated unfairly?

I’m going to leave that one as a rhetorical question as well.

But, one thing is for sure. The person who was treated most unfairly in all of this was the so-called winner, Ms. Osaka. She definitely got the short end of the stick as the court of public opinion, indicted, tried and convicted tennis and Ramos on charges of Double Standards and Sexism right in the middle of the biggest moment of her life.

I have a great deal of respect, admiration and empathy for Serena and consider her to be one of, if not the greatest, overall athletes that I have ever seen – male or female.  Fortunately or unfortunately the blessing that drives the passion to greatness is also the curse that drives the passion off the rails.

You can’t win as much as she has by simply loving to win, you must also hate to lose and I believe in the end that was what fueled all of this in the moment.  Serena was facing mortality in the name of Naomi Osaka, a young star in the making modeled in her own image, who is young enough to conceivably be her daughter.

My hope is that when the dust settles and everything calms down that Serena will use the bully pulpit that she has to reform the rules and regulations to remove the real double standards that exist.

She’ll get it done. In that I am sure.

About the author

Andre Kimo Stone Guess
Andre Kimo Stone Guess

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.

Educated Guesses A Blog Full of Guesses