Tennis: Serena makes a good point, just at the wrong time

NEW YORK • Let's be clear: Tennis has a problem with gender equality.

Although men and women earn the same prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, there's a wide pay gap overall.

In the women's singles final at the US Open on Saturday, Serena Williams imploded after the umpire Carlos Ramos issued her a warning about receiving illegal coaching and then penalised her twice later in the second set, once when she threw down her racket and then again after she called him a liar and a thief.

Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan, showed amazing poise amid the disarray and overpowered her childhood hero to claim her first Grand Slam title.

But there was hardly an ounce of joy in the victory. The match tarnished tennis and was a stinging blow to sportsmanship.

There are some very real issues of gender equality in tennis, a sport I have covered for more than 15 years, and Williams got people talking about them. Unto itself, that's a wonderful thing.

But it must also be pointed out that the match was ruined, and Osaka's great moment was clouded, because Williams let her temper get the best of her and Ramos couldn't find a better way to retake control of the match.

Rafael Nadal feuded with Ramos during last year's French Open, and Djokovic did so at Wimbledon... Those players vented and moved on without derailing the entire match. Bad officiating permeates sport. But you expect top players to gripe and move on.

So instead of a match for the ages, the heralding of a young and deserving talent, it will probably be remembered for Williams calling the umpire a sexist liar and later saying her complaints were made for the equal rights of all women. But on closer examination, it's also true that this umpire has been tough on top male players, too. The difference is that the men didn't belabour their arguments with him.

Williams' tirade wasn't a pretty moment for a woman who is an icon for women, female athletes, African-Americans and working mothers. She's so much better than the Serena Williams who showed up on Saturday.

"Had I behaved like that on a tennis court, I would have expected to get everything that happened to Serena," said Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and a record nine Wimbledon titles, and has been a longtime advocate for equality in the sport. "It should've ended right there with the point warning, but Serena just couldn't let it go."

She added: "She completely had the right message about women's inequality, but it wasn't the right time to bring it up."

Ramos officiated with his usual exacting eye. He gave Williams a warning for receiving coaching in the second set. His action was warranted because Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to coaching her. But Williams exploded into a tantrum. She pointed her finger and demanded an apology from Ramos.

You can argue the nuances. Lots of coaches coach and lots of players are coached from off the court. And lots of umpires don't call them on it. You also have to wonder if Williams would have gone after Ramos so relentlessly - and with such conviction to stand up for women's rights - if she were winning.

Williams told Ramos that her coach had just given her a thumbs-up. But Mouratoglou appeared to be gesturing for Williams to move to the net, and move to the net she did, and it started to work for her.

Later, after losing a game, Williams smashed her racket, and Ramos docked her a point, as the rules require. When her tirade against Ramos continued, he could have warned her that she was going too far. But he chose to stoke the fire. He penalised her one game for verbal abuse. She came back to say that Ramos did it only because she was a woman.

Female players are sick of the double standards and snide comments, as they should be. But the events on Saturday shouldn't be included in this long list of injustices.

Williams had opportunities to put the first penalty behind her and snap back into focusing on the game, but didn't.

Billie Jean King, a pioneer for women's equality in sports, weighed in on Twitter. "When a woman is emotional, she's 'hysterical' and she's penalised for it," King wrote. "When a man does the same, he's 'outspoken' and there are no such repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same." Hard to argue with that.

But it was disappointing that King said nothing about the poor timing of Williams' powerful voice. It made me think back to last year's Open, when the Italian Fabio Fognini unleashed a barrage of Italian curses upon a female umpire and was kicked out of the tournament.

So sometimes, there are repercussions.

Rafael Nadal feuded with Ramos during last year's French Open, and Djokovic did so at Wimbledon. "Double standards, my friend, double standards," Djokovic said to Ramos. Those players vented and moved on without derailing the entire match.

Bad officiating permeates sport. But you expect top players to gripe and move on.

Nobody should get a pass for bad behaviour. Williams reminded the crowd of that on the awards podium. She asked the fans to stop booing and to recognise Osaka's achievement.

Williams said: "Maybe it was the mom in me that was like, 'Listen, we got to pull ourselves together here'."

Finally, words befitting one of the greatest athletes ever.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Serena makes a good point, just at the wrong time'. Print Edition | Subscribe