Serena Williams is owed an apology for much more than a penalty
And it wasn’t only Williams who was punished for her success at the 2018 US Open — so too was Naomi Osaka
It’s a tale as old as the legend of the Williams sisters: Anticipating the animus they would face if they ever became successful on the world stage, their father, Richard Williams, got passers-by to shout insults at the sisters as they practiced on the dilapidated public courts of Compton, California.
Williams, 76, was no stranger to racism or the effects it could have on a person’s psyche; he witnessed a friend get lynched while growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, he told CNN in 2015. And so, after deciding that his girls would be the toast of tennis, Williams issued a sociological vaccine to inoculate their spirits from the hatred that eventually found them. In 2001, at Indian Wells, spectators hissed the word “n—–” at the Williamses and told Richard, “I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive.”
But there was a challenge that not even Richard could foresee or head off. Frankly, no one could, aside maybe from Hogwarts divination professor Sybill Trelawney: the insidious, sneaky racism that tends to get described, when identified at all, as “unconscious bias.” The stuff that plays games with your head and makes you question your own sanity. The stuff that skates by under benefit of the doubt or plausible deniability. The stuff that questions an athlete’s integrity without evidence or probable cause, like being tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than any other comparable player. The stuff that says you can’t wear a compression catsuit anymore at the French Open because “one must respect the game and the place.”
The stuff that’s become a mere fact of life for tennis’ most visible and dominant player, Serena Williams.
Saturday night, during the US Open final against Naomi Osaka, the allegation from chair umpire Carlos Ramos was that Williams was being coached — in essence, that she was cheating. He gave her a warning, and when Williams took umbrage and smashed a racket during her second set, Ramos imposed a point penalty for abuse of equipment.
Frustrated, Williams let Ramos have it right there during the match.
“You owe me an apology,” she said, her voice growing louder. “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life! … For you to attack my character, it’s wrong.”
Sorting this out is a messy enterprise, which is exactly what makes it so frustrating. In an interview with ESPN, Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to coaching Serena from the box but accused Ramos of singling out Williams. “Everybody does it — you all know it,” Mouratoglou said, but not everyone is penalized for it. It’s like the dog whistle of “law and order” that signals disproportionate enforcement of drug laws for people of color versus whites. To Mouratoglou, Ramos was guilty of going power mad instead of responsibly wielding prosecutorial discretion.
Williams is so often targeted and punished under the guise of “respect” or “professionalism” in a way that her white and male counterparts are not. The rules of tennis mean one thing for Williams and another for everyone else. She knows it, and she’s sick of it.
“You stole a point from me,” Williams said to Ramos during the match. “You’re a thief too.” Down 4-3 to Osaka in the second set after losing the first 6-2, Williams suffered another blow.
Already under unique scrutiny, Williams was then disciplined like a child for behavior that’s commonly tolerated from male tennis players. Ramos penalized her a game, leaving her trailing 5-3.
John McEnroe used to smash his rackets and call chair umpires “idiots.” In one instance, he spat, “Over 1,000 officials to choose from and I get a moron like you.”
But when Williams reacts like a human when she is being treated unfairly, or when her character is maligned, she is seen as egregiously unruly. Williams, in her very existence, in her style of play, in the shape of her body, in the curve and power of her muscles, is unruly. She’s never ladylike enough. No matter how many times she twirls girlishly with her trophies, she’s never dainty enough. She’s never white enough. And what’s more, she refuses to shrink away in shame or be anything other than herself. And even though she’s all of these things she’s not supposed to be, she wins anyhow. She’s won so much she’s one Grand Slam away from tying the singles title record held by Margaret Court, a mascot of The Old Ways of Tennis if ever there was one.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” Williams said in her postmatch news conference, mustering up the feminist ferocity of Billie Jean King. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was sexist. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ ”
Williams won her first Grand Slam here at age 17. But Arthur Ashe Stadium is not a place that is solely associated with happy memories for her. There is tainted history here. In 2004, chair umpire Mariana Alves made multiple bad calls against Williams in the US Open quarterfinal, costing Williams the match against Jennifer Capriati. The officiating mistakes were so egregious USTA officials called Williams to apologize.
In 2009, during a semifinal match against Kim Clijsters, when Williams was down 5-6 in the second set after having lost the first, Williams was called for an imaginary foot fault (it was undetectable from any replay angle, and yet she was penalized anyhow).
“I swear to God I’m f—ing going to take this f—ing ball and shove it down your f—ing throat, you hear that? I swear to God!” Williams shouted at the lineswoman whose vision was apparently blinded by Serena Goggles.
When Claudia Rankine published Citizen: An American Lyric in 2015, she mused upon the disrespect Williams faced while excelling at her job, while remaining ever so unshrinkingly black:
In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief — code for being black in America — is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context — randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.
The rocky aggregation of doubt and disrespect came bubbling up again Saturday, through a smashed racket, a waving index finger, the deployment of the word “thief.”
What’s more worrisome, though, is that Ramos’ disciplinary grandstanding from, quite literally, on high also served a more chilling purpose, whether it was intentional or not. His refusal to respect Williams as an honest competitor doubled as a public and humiliating warning to the young Osaka, whose Haitian father famously decided to recreate Richard Williams’ training philosophy with his own daughters.
It was affront enough to the tennis establishment when the Williams sisters won their way, over and over and over, by following the unconventional methods of their irascible patriarch. But a subsequent generation, and a copycat one at that?
And so not only was Serena Williams being punished for her own success, so too was Osaka, who sat with a towel draped over her head moments after she won, as if she was ashamed of her accomplishment. What should have been a moment of triumph was one that appeared more steeped in grief, so much so that Osaka felt compelled to apologize — for winning!
“I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” Osaka said before the trophy ceremony, her words blasting through the PA system at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”
In that moment, through sheer human decency and compassion, Williams was forced to shift from the role of competitor, the role that still inspires disgust and discomfort in so many whenever Williams reminds them of it, to something far less threatening: that of mother. She consoled Osaka and instructed a disappointed crowd to show some respect.
“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying,” Williams said during her news conference. “You know, she just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment. I felt like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam.’ … I definitely don’t want her to feel like that. Maybe it was the mom in me that was like, ‘Listen, we gotta pull ourselves together here.’ ”
Osaka’s longtime dream of beating her idol on this very stage had curdled into a nightmare. It wasn’t just that she won. It was the way it happened.
“I know that, like, she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere,” Osaka explained in her postmatch news conference. “When I step on the court, I feel like a different person, right? I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net …”
Osaka paused, clearly overwhelmed, tears welling, her voice caught in her throat.
“When I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
Perhaps the kid in Osaka will be the one who hears the words Williams used to close out the night: “I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal — [Alizé] Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine. This is outrageous. I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”