During my recent trip to America, we got on to talking about sport. With the Americans, there was the talk about how their football wasn’t really and then we were able to join with the Indians in roundly condemning baseball as inferior to cricket.
When broken down, the arguments went like this. “It’s not really football when only one player actually uses his foot to kick the ball over a bar and between two posts only at very specific points in a game. At least in Association Football, it’s actually a foul to use anything other than your foot in specific circumstances. And baseball? They’re just swinging and hoping they hit anywhere as long as it goes a long way. They even use mittens to help them catch it.”
They’re all simple games, involving a ball, thrown, kicked, hit and caught in a field. Yet they instil a lot of passion in players and spectators. Tennis is a simple game where people hit a ball over a net and score a point of they hit it past their opponent, and people get passionate about it. It’s not always done on a field, though.
This passion for the sport was shown by Serena Williams in losing the US Open Women’s final to Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old from Japan whose hero was Serena herself. It was a meltdown from Serena that contributed to the defeat, and it’s not the first time that she’s done it on Arthur Ashe when she has been behind.
In 2009, Williams was penalised for a foot fault that gave her opponent two championship points. Williams approached the female official and said: “I swear to God, I’m going to take this f***ing ball and shove it down your f***ing throat,” for which was fined $82,500.
Against Sam Stosur two years later, Serena celebrated winning a point too early and was penalised for hinderance by female umpire Eva Asderaki. Williams’ response:
I truly despise you… I promise you, if you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way because you’re out of control. You’re a hater and you’re just unattractive inside. Don’t even look at me. Don’t look my way.
Virginia Wade, herself a three-times grand-slam singles champion, said that she “can’t believe she’s [Williams] turning it around and making herself a victim.”
On Saturday night, Serena was given a violation for receiving coaching (that she didn’t see, but her coach admitted to). She was given another for purposefully breaking her racket. The third and final violation came when she called male umpire Carlos Ramos a “liar” and a “thief”. That left her opponent only one game from victory, which she subsequently delivered.
After the match, the topic of conversation was the sexist officiating. Williams said:
For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.
For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal . . . like [Alize] Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine [Cornet was not fined, she was warned by the umpire]. This is outrageous.
The WTA backed Williams, calling for “no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women.”
Former umpire Richard Ings, who was also in charge of officials and rules on the men’s tour, backed Ramos’ actions, saying that, “Carlos was composed, effective, knowledgeable of the rules and applied them absolutely correctly in each of those three situations.”
The whole thing has left me somewhat scratching my head. Ramos was right in what he did. Were there a conversation about whether coaching should be allowed, or whether rules have not been applied consistently in the game in general, I could have understood it. The rules, to my limited knowledge, don’t seem open to interpretation – they look pretty cut and dried, strict liability offences for which there should be no excuse for them not to be applied the same way game after game.
In a similar vein, we could then venture that two wrongs don’t make a right and, despite the poor rules, Serena did overstep the mark.
However, talking from a position of white male privilege, but a privilege that doesn’t extend to that of an elite sportsperson, I’m not quite sure that I believe that in the heat of that moment, Serena was acting for the greater good of her gender. These were not accusations that she levelled when the officials who ruled against her were female. I wonder if Osaka saw a woman acting on her behalf for the advancement not only of the game but her gender, or whether she saw the limelight of her big moment stolen by an angry opponent unable to control herself. Did any woman, or person of any other gender for that matter, see Serena at that point in time pointing at Ramos, seething, and thing that she was not doing it as a result of the pressure of losing a Grand Slam final?
Serena is a great champion and a great campaigner who has had to overcome many barriers to be in the position she is in today, both on the court and to affect change in society. In this instance, though, I wonder whether prejudice was sought in a place that it simply didn’t exist, because she wasn’t hitting a ball past her opponent quite as often as it was travelling past her. That isn’t good for anybody.