We need to talk about Serena
Why the Grand Slam controversies matter
By Andi Endruhn, Layout Editor
Uncontroversial statement: Serena Williams is one of the world’s greatest athletes in the history of sports.
Unfortunately one of the greatest sports stars of our time has been the centre of multiple controversies this year at Grand Slam events, revolving around her and the established rules of what’s acceptable on court.
If you don’t regularly pay attention to tennis, the women’s singles matches at the French and U.S. Opens may have been something that crossed your radar this year.
Returning to tennis after having her baby in September 2017, Williams is yet to win a Grand Slam title.
Earlier this summer in her debut return to Grand Slam tennis, Williams showed up at the French Open in a catsuit, causing an uproar in the tennis world. The offending item that she had chosen to wear was not to make a bold fashion statement but for medical reasons. Many of these reasons were tied up in the fact that she had recently given birth and having a baby is not the easiest thing on an athlete (or anyone’s) body.
Prior to Williams wearing a catsuit at the French Open, there were no rules about them being acceptable or unacceptable on the court. Tennis has a history of confusing and varying fashion rules that change depending on the venue and at what level the games are being held. For example, the Wimbledon Competitors dress code is 10 rules, all pertaining to the whiteness of clothing items, not what they are. Williams’ catsuit did not break any of the generally relaxed rules at French Open. However, taking a page from Wimbledon who banned the catsuit in 1985 when Anne White wore an all white version in competition, the French Open promptly banned Williams catsuit and any hoping to follow her.
In response to this, the president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli said, “You have to respect the game and place.”
If all that had happened was a clash over clothing it would be one thing. But then, the U.S. Open happened.
The match between the up and coming 20 year-old, Japanese born Naomi Osaka and 36 year-old Serena Williams started off amazing, showcasing the best talent of both women: a rising star and the current queen. Prior to playing, Osaka said that just playing Williams in a Grand Slam final was a dream come true. Then all hell broke loose.
Maybe you’ve seen photos of Williams shouting at the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. Maybe you’ve seen her hugging Osaka at the awards asking the fans to stop booing so Osaka, the first Japanese Grand Slam Winner ever, could enjoy her moment. Maybe you’ve even seen the interviews run back to back of Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, contradicting each other. You’ve probably definitely seen Williams saying “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” over and over to Ramos and a cut to her calling him a thief when he made the fateful call.
Here’s what happened: No coaching is allowed at Grand Slam events. Coaches may be present and are often found in the stand, but they are not allowed to communicate with their player. However, that’s not always how it plays out and in the words of Mouratoglou, “Everybody does it—you all know it.”
Ramos, a Gold Badge umpire, and considered one of the best in the world, gave Williams a code violation for coaching—a first strike warning call. While code violations for coaching happen, they don’t as regularly as they should be if the rule is to be taken seriously. Williams is an unlikely target for this sort of warning to be given out, considering she regularly doesn’t use the on court coaching that’s allowed at other events.
Mouratoglou confessed in a post-game interview that he had been coaching, but he wasn’t even sure if Williams had been looking.
“I was like a hundred per cent of the coaches on a hundred per cent of the matches, so we have to stop this hypocrite thing,” he said, including that Osaka’s coach had been doing the same.
Williams, furious about the warning in a finals match, continued to call for an apology from the umpire and distractedly played a poor game, engaged with Ramos rather than Osaka or better yet, her own playing style. She was given her second code violation for racket abuse after smashing it following losing the game, costing her a point and putting Osaka automatically at 15-Love for the next game.
Williams confronted Ramos saying that the initial code violation for coaching should have been retracted and again later in the game shouting “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.”
Ramos issued a third code violation resulting in an automatic game loss for Williams putting Osaka at 5-3. Williams protested saying that to declare a game was over because a player had said the calls were unfair, was uncalled for.
Williams later started the main reason for public outcry when she yelled in a state of tears, “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen.”
When Osaka won the title, it was to the jeering boos of a Williams home crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium and tears from both competitors. The way the game had called and been finished put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, whether you believed that Williams had been righteous or wrong.
Like many sports controversies taking place, it was divisive. Williams can easily look like a bratty, entitled, prima donna of the sports world throwing a tantrum because she was called on for cheating.
That’s not the person I see.
Serena Williams, frustrated and in tears on one of the sports grandest stages was calling out one of the biggest sports hypocrisies. Looking like someone who is tired of having officials try to take her game away from her using made-up, or insincere rulings.
You can say that the way Williams dogged Ramos asking for an apology was unsportsmanlike.
Shouting at an official throughout the match demanding answers easily looks bad. So does kicking a ball at the umpires head (Andy Murray, 2016 Cincinnati Masters), telling the umpire to not “fucking talk to me” (Roger Federer, 2009, U.S. Open Men’s finals) and cussing out and spitting on the umpire (Andre Agassi, 1991, U.S. Open). The difference is that Williams paid with a shot at a Grand Slam title and $17,000 in fines. Agassi was fined $3,000, Federer was fined $1,500 while Murray received no penalty.
Our heroes are fallible people. It’s an idea that can be hard to wrap our heads around, but they do stray from what is right. Maybe Williams did cheat. Maybe she’s lying through her teeth.
Even if so, this doesn’t change that she’s been treated differently from her other competitors. It doesn’t change that one of the highest profile players, who happens to be a woman and happens to be a black woman, is being singled out by game officials.
We need to talk about Serena Williams because what’s happening shows the foundational cracks in the sport. Serena Williams is black, she’s a woman and she’s unafraid to speak her mind. And that is exactly what tennis doesn’t want.
Editor’s note: Headline has been changed since publication to match print edition.