Once the raging emotions surrounding one of the most controversial Grand Slam finals in recent history settle down, it is worth examining the events that transpired between Serena Williams and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, at the 2018 U.S. Open.
It began when Williams was given a code violation for in-match coaching, which her coach Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to later. According to the Grand Slam rulebook, “players shall not receive coaching during a match. Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.” Since there exists no mechanism to penalise the coach, the burden falls on the player. Williams then smashed her racquet in frustration after losing serve. According to the rulebook, racquet abuse is a code violation. Her second code violation of the match resulted in a point penalty. She went on to call the chair umpire a “thief” and “liar”, statements that were considered verbal abuse. Williams was ultimately awarded a game penalty at the most crucial juncture of the match and went on to lose the championship to Naomi Osaka.
Ramos, a gold-badge chair umpire, is known mostly for being a stickler for rules. If any of the violations had happened singularly, he may have been inclined to look more softly upon the infractions. That they happened on the biggest stage of both the players’ careers, and in quick succession, was unfortunate.
Williams could have kept her composure. She went on to argue that she was wrongly being called out for cheating, and accused Ramos of sexism. She may not have realised that in the 2018 U.S. Open, men received 23 fines for code violations compared to nine for women, or that men have frequently been slapped with such violations in other Grand Slams too, including by Ramos. Most of all she didn’t understand that the following things could be true all at once: Williams did not cheat, Mouratoglou did indeed coach.
Maybe Williams was clouded by just how important the match was — winning it may have been the culmination of her career, of what it represents. As an African-American woman from Compton playing in a sport whose roots are affluent and white, she has been at the receiving end of unfair treatment on several occasions: from her “unfeminine physique” being assessed as an advantage, to being drug-tested more than many players. She may have thought that yet again, here was someone who wanted to stop her for no fault of hers. It was poor judgment on her part, but it helps to look at it from her perspective as well. Williams’s importance as a tennis icon, woman, and working mother is far too great. She faces expectations that we can barely imagine, and she lives up to them. But may be not always.
The writer covers tennis for The Hindu