Though the media has focused on possible sexism by the umpire, Serena Williams did not lose solely due to gender discrimination.
Serena Williams has gathered media attention for reasons other than being one of the most accomplished tennis players of all time, with 23 Grand Slam Singles titles. This is more spotlight garnered than iconic players such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Rafael Nadal and even Roger Federer. She reached that number of titles before taking time away to give birth to her first child in September of 2017. Upon her return to the worldwide tennis stage, Williams gained media attention for her candid interviews about her relatable, positive and negative experiences of motherhood. Though she has been revered for her openness and triumphant return to tennis at the professional level, the 2018 U.S. Open brought Williams controversial and negative attention.
In the final round of the U.S. Open, Williams received penalties that resulted in the loss of a game. For any misconduct, players first receive a warning, then the loss of a point, and then the loss of a game. Williams received a warning for getting coached during the match. She felt that this was an attack on her character, claiming that she would never cheat, and demanded an apology from the umpire, Carlos Ramos. She then lost a point for slamming her racket on the court and a third for calling Ramos a thief. Ramos saw her comment as verbal abuse. The set score went to three to five instead of three to four. Williams believed that the umpire treated her unfairly because she is a woman. She argued that male players make comments to umpires that are worse than her calling him a thief, but do not receive scoring penalties in the name of verbal abuse. The question arose whether the umpire’s penalties were fair or sexist, as Williams believed.
The matter is that her outburst of anger was rather over the top and went on for too long. If she would have addressed the reasons behind the penalties calmly after the match, perhaps her case could have been adequately handled. It seems as if Williams is coming from a space of heightened emotional vulnerability, a side of her that has only surfaced since her absence from the sport’s domination. Her comeback has been complicated, and she may not even enjoy that term, as suggested in her commercial ad for Chase, wherein she states, “Don’t call it a comeback.” Behind the scenes, she has battled postpartum depression as well due to the balancing act of being a parent and a professional athlete. The cheating and verbal abuse accusation added to her already underwhelming performance during the match beforehand and put her on the defensive against both her opponent Naomi Osaka and match officials. She reached her boiling point.
Personal matters and attacks upon character aside, sexism has loomed around professional tennis long before Williams began the discussion at the U.S. Open. Billie Jean King, who reached the number one ranking in women’s tennis during the 1970s, has pushed for equal prize money among male and female players. Former professional men’s tennis players have come to Williams’s defense, agreeing with her statement that men can shout rude comments at umpires and lose their cool in anger without scoring penalties.
However, Ramos has been known to give such penalties to men as well, showing that he is not sexist. The biggest problem that I came across after the blow-up of the U.S. Open finals was the twisting of words by outside media that so often occurs. CBS News anchors mentioned race as a factor, a factor that Williams never once attributed to the ordeal. Hopefully, what fans and heads of tennis organizations will learn from this is that double standards cannot go unnoticed. Leave it to a figure as prominent as Serena Williams to call attention to them, even if she did so a bit ineloquently.