Tennis has long been one of the most loved sports in the world. Thousands of viewers tune in from home with thousands more flock to the matches to be spectators for coveted matches. One of those infamous coveted matches was this year’s US Open tennis match between Serena Williams and new kid on the block, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. The match had it all: riveting tennis, outstanding displays of talent, and drama. Drama surrounded this year’s match on a scale not seen in women’s tennis in many years. From the beginning of the match up until the moment Williams essentially handed the game to Osaka on a silver platter with all the trimmings, there was more to watch than the average US Open match offers – as if that were not enough. From yelling at the umpire to smashing her racket, it sounds like the historic game Williams was set to play against Osaka proved her a “drama queen” of the sport. Only, that is not what happened at all…not even close.
Every athlete in the game has their quirks and preferences within the world of their sport. Star athletes have their favorite tennis racquets and fans have their favorite tennis markets. Each tennis player also has their own unique characteristics that play out during their matches (from the grunts that explode as they put their entire being into every racket hit, to the way they treat the umpires and their opponents). Williams topped Forbes‘ list of the highest-paid female athletes this year, with her annual earnings for this calendar year equalling $18,162,000 US ($62,000 in winnings and a further $18.1 million from a monumental endorsement portfolio which is, thus far, unparalleled among women in sports). This proof of her financial value as an athlete, coupled with her advanced skillset, make Williams a weapon in tennis. For Serena Williams, she is infamous for her winning talents and her astonishing smile. A global star on and off the court, Williams is a fan-favourite and an idol for other players in the industry. Her opponent in this recent US Open match, Naomi Osaka, is one of those key players who idolises Williams.
The highly-anticipated match between a titan of the sport and a fresh-faced rising star began as any tennis match does. The players acknowledge one another, the ball bounces, and the game begins. As the match powered on, however, the tides began to shift and the mood on the court began to change. Carlos Ramos, the umpire of this particular match, was a man doing his job – nothing more, nothing less. Throughout the match, Williams was given not one, not two, but three code violations. By the time the third violation was handed out, Williams was done with the game and Osaka was handed the victory; this is the equivalent of Williams essentially letting Osaka best her at her own game four times consecutively.
The first code violation was handed to Williams for receiving signals from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, from the stands – signals which Mouratoglou himself later acknowledged were carried out. On the back of her first code violation of the match, Williams smashed her racket, costing herself a point. While the action of athletes smashing their rackets is by no means unheard of (it is in fact quite a common occurrence in the sport), Williams cost herself the point because the action came almost directly after her first citation of the match. Williams then proceeded to verbally abuse Ramos, calling him a “thief” because, in her words, he had never taken a point from a man for the same thing. And there lies the deep-rooted problem.
It is by no means uncommon for male tennis players to verbally abuse their umpires. Williams is not wrong in stating that fact. It is also true that women are marginalised in the sport and not always treated fairly – on average, the male players get away with far more than female players do on (and off, for that matter) the court. Despite these facts, there are countless occurrences where male players have been penalised or even suspended for verbally abusing the umpires or other players. The issue here lies in the fact that Williams has suffered racism and marginalisation her whole life. Mere months ago she was reprimanded for wearing a catsuit during a match; despite the outfit being designed to control muscle movement following an emergency C-section delivery of her first child, Olympia, in September last year, Williams was cautioned and advised that she would not be able to wear it again. She responded with humour, wearing a back tutu to a following match.
Instances like this are just those of Williams herself – one in a million faces of women who deal with sexist, even racist action and remarks every day of their lives – and they are prime examples of how women have been treated unfairly in the industry. While Ramos was not wrong in his decisions to penalise her multiple times during this US Open match, it comes off the back of a history of being marginalised because of her gender and her race, and Williams was well within her rights to make her feelings and her voice known – she just chose to take those feelings out on the wrong umpire. Even this can be forgiven, because the history of gender marginalisation in tennis speaks for itself. There have been instances of female players changing shirts during their matches and being penalised – whereas male players change their shirts constantly and receive no violation. Just one example in a deep pool of hundreds, this is where the issue lies. Not with Williams.
While there are those who believe that Williams merely used her fame and name as a means to act like a diva on the court, the vast majority post-match have showered the tennis star with support and words of encouragement. One key example of this encouragement post-match came in the wake of a cartoon of Williams at the US Open match that depicts her as the stereotypical, highly offensive “angry black woman” trope. The artist, cartoonist Mark Knight of the Herald Sun, defended his illustration by insisting that he simply drew her as she appeared at the match. The uproar over the drawing, however, begs not only Knight, but the world to realise the deeper issues at hand.
While the events that unfolded at the now highly publicised US Open event were troubling, and verbal abuse is never okay, the deeper-rooted issues at hand demand that more be done to right the ship for female players in not only tennis, but across all sports. Sexism has long been an unfortunate tidal wave in society for years, but the simple realisation that in 2018 we must do better, must be better, should be more than enough to drive the issue home, and to find a viable solution. Williams misspoke, she reacted poorly, but as just one of the many faces of sexism in her sport for years upon years, Williams was strong enough to take a stand and demand a better future for women in sports – even if her stand was directed at the wrong person. Let this be a lesson: we must all do better, we must all strive to be better.