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At the 2018 US Open Women's Final the Fault Goes to Serena
By Cliff Kurtzman
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Tennis Server.

Cliff Kurtzman Photo
Cliff Kurtzman

The 2018 US Open Women's Final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka ended amidst great controversy, with Serena being levied a warning, point penalty, and game penalty for a series of rule violations. Serena was also subsequently fined $17,000 for her actions. Serena expended considerable energy blaming the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, along with gender discrimination, as responsible for the actions taken against her in the final match. The controversy was then further exacerbated by outrage, expressed on social media as well as through traditional media, claiming both race and gender discrimination was responsible for the way Serena was treated. A prominent column in the Washington Post by columnist Sally Jenkins notably blamed the chair umpire for wrecking the occasion for both players by engaging in a male dominance power play (See: At U.S. Open, power of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka is overshadowed by an umpire's power play).
 
So let's review what happened in detail and see how that all holds up.
 
At this year's US Open, men received 23 fines for code violations, compared with nine for women. This particular umpire is known for being very strict, giving time violations to Nadal, for example, where other umpires are more restrained. Umpires have a degree of latitude in deciding if and when to assess some penalties, and they are historically somewhat inconsistent about it, both individually and as a group. Carlos Ramos is no different (See: Umpire Carlos Ramos has history of being stickler for violations).
 
Serena has a history of bad behavior and verbal abuse in big matches (See: Serena Williams' list of US Open implosions). This situation was hardly new to her, and she knew very well what kind of conduct was expected of her on Stadium Court during the US Open final. Other players, both men and women, have gotten away with worse verbal abuse without receiving penalties... and yet other times, other players have received similar penalties in big matches. (See: It is Serena Williams who owes an apology to umpire Carlos Ramos).
 
Serena deserves neither better nor worse treatment from a chair umpire due to her gender, her race, her past on-court conduct, or her undeniable status as one of the greatest tennis players and athletes of all time.
 
In the second set of the final, with Serena having lost the first set, Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou was caught signalling Serena during the match. This is a rule violation, one that occurred in the context of a Grand Slam final being internationally televised around the world. Serena was issued a warning, as is the appropriate penalty for a first conduct violation. Mouratoglou has admitted that he was providing signals, but claimed that basically everyone does it so it was no big deal. That just isn't true. It is certainly debatable whether the rule should even exist in the first place, but it does exist, and when a chair umpire catches it happening in a Grand Slam final, they have no real choice but to flag the behavior and act upon it. It would be grossly unfair to the other player to ignore it.
 
Serena claims she didn't see the hand signals and was indignant that she was being called a cheater (she was not... she was penalized because her coach violated a rule). Whether or not Serena saw the hand signals and acted upon them is irrelevant. She might not have been personally cheating, but her coach violated the rules and was attempting to cheat. She had every right to be livid with her coach for jeopardizing her match outcome and her reputation through his actions, but the chair umpire did exactly what he should have been doing. (See: Rules are rules, and Serena Williams should take responsibility for her team's failure to follow them.)
 
Serena then smashed her racquet in anger after losing a critical game. This constituted a second conduct violation, which clearly required that a point penalty be levied against Serena under the rules.
 
Then Serena unleashed a verbal tirade against Ramos. She stated, in part:

"For you to attack my character is wrong. You owe me an apology. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you're sorry.
 
"How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me. You're a thief too."

And for this outbreak, Serena was assessed a penalty of a full game, as is the required penalty under the rules for a third conduct violation. This put Serena behind 5-3 in the second set. She went on to lose the match shortly thereafter.
 
So Serena, whose coach had first violated the rules, and who had then herself personally violated the rules, attacked the honesty of the chair umpire, who had in fact followed the rules correctly. She also falsely accused the chair umpire of attacking her character. And if that was all that had happened, I'd have said that the chair umpire, who has discretion in deciding if such verbal abuse warrants a penalty, might have well let it slide in that situation. Other umpires have, at times, certainly failed to level penalties for more significant verbal abuse.
 
But it seemed to me that even far more egregious than Serena calling the umpire a thief was her statement "You will never be on a court with me as long as you live." That's where, in conjunction with her other remarks, Serena crossed a line that I don't think the chair umpire could ignore with the entire world watching. She was basically attempting to threaten and intimidate Ramos, indicating that because she is the great SERENA, he had better treat her differentially or he (and any other umpire that upsets her in the future) should be prepared to face consequences.
 
This was all quite unusual to happen in a Grand Slam final... not so much because of the chair umpire's rulings, but because most players and coaches have the good sense to act better when on the world stage and with so much on the line.
 
In a somewhat similar situation at the French Open with Nadal, Ramos had failed to assess an additional penalty against Nadal for making a similar threat. Perhaps this situation was different in ways that caused Ramos to react differently. Perhaps Ramos had felt that he had made a mistake in his prior situation with Nadal, and had learned from that situation. Perhaps he was acting randomly and capriciously. Perhaps he was treating Serena differently because of her gender or race. These are not unreasonable questions to ask. But they are unreasonable conclusions to leap to without more information.
 
Serena's conduct was reprehensible. If my child ever talked to a chair umpire that way, they would be grounded off the tennis court for three months minimum. It was completely out of line, and while one certainly wishes it had not happened in a Grand Slam final, it was well within the discretion of the chair umpire to rule on it as he did.
 
Following the John McEnroe playbook, there were perhaps two primary motivations for Serena's outbursts. Firstly, she was losing the match and needed to regroup. By blowing off some steam, it gave her a chance to pause and refocus, while also potentially using the tantrum to disrupt her opponent's focus. It doesn't always work, but it has worked for her before, as it sometimes did for McEnroe. Secondly, she was attempting to set precedent for future matches, letting chair umpires know that there is a price to be paid if they dare to enforce the rules with her. Neither of these motivations fall under the classification of acting with good sportsmanship.
 
To her credit, during the post match ceremonies, Serena took respite from her tirade to try to make the ceremony about Naomi's victory. Yet I don't think she ever took responsibility for her own bad behavior, engaging in blame shifting to place it upon the referee along with gender inequality. (See: For Serena Williams, a Memorable U.S. Open Final for the Wrong Reasons and Sexism claim is a red herring -- Serena Williams should apologise after overshadowing Naomi Osaka's big moment.)
 
It isn't impossible that there is systemic discrimination in the world of professional tennis due to race or gender. The question is well worth asking and investigating. There is truly ample data in America showing that, for example, justice under our legal system is unfairly applied based on race and socioeconomic status. But for Serena to claim that the specific actions taken against her during the 2018 US Open final were based on race or gender when she had so clearly and blatantly violated the rules is every bit as disingenuous as a politician shouting WITCH HUNT as his associates fall to convictions and guilty pleas amidst a swamp of evidence of criminal activity.
 
The only thief on the court was Serena Williams. The public was robbed of seeing a good and fair match played under appropriate conditions. The legacy of Arthur Ashe, for whom the stadium in which she played was named, was robbed by her unsportsmanlike conduct and actions.
 
But most of all, Naomi Osaka was robbed of the sheer unsullied joy of her first Grand Slam final win, a victory she truly earned (See: It's shameful what US Open did to Naomi Osaka).
 
We congratulate Naomi on her great and well deserved victory.
 

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