When I sat down to watch the U.S. Open women’s finals earlier this month, I never expected to experience so much anger during a tennis match.
I watched as Serena Williams saw her chances for a record 24th Grand Slam title — with the added storyline of returning to the sport after nearly dying while giving birth to her daughter — be decided not by her opponent across from the net, Naomi Osaka, but rather the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.
I watched as Williams was issued a coaching violation for a gesture from her coach that she didn’t seem to even see while on court, a warning that someone, like myself who watches a lot of tennis, can’t remember being issued to another player, leading me to believe it’s not one that is doled out with any consistency.
What I have seen is cameras switching to coaches who do seem to try to give their players similar help during matches without violations being issued.
I watched as Williams felt compelled to have to defend her integrity after being issued the violation, telling Ramos on court: “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.”
Shortly after, Williams was able to break Osaka’s serve, but was broken back, leading her to slam her racket in frustration. Ramos issued her a violation for that as well, docking her a point, meaning that Osaka started her serve game up before it even began, and further infuriating Williams.
Williams, still fuming at the injustice of the first violation for coaching she says she didn’t receive, continued her argument with the chair umpire, insisting she doesn’t cheat and calling him a “thief” for taking a point from her.
Instead of letting things go and giving Williams some latitude with a championship on the line, Ramos decided to overstep and further insert himself into the match and docked Williams an entire game for a third violation, making it virtually impossible for her, down a set and a break in the second set, to come back and win the match.
Williams might not have won regardless, as Osaka was outplaying her for much of the match before the controversy, but she knew she lost the moment she was docked a game, leading her to tell the umpire that she had seen a lot of men do a lot worse on court and not get penalized and saying in exasperation, “because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me. That is not right.”
That’s really the crux of what was so infuriating, why I was so angry watching Williams basically get put in her place and kept down during the match with the successive penalties.
Ramos was asserting that he was in charge and wanted to make sure Williams knew it. As other columnists have noted, he wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him like that and get away with it.
With his actions, Ramos not only took away Williams’ chances of winning, but he also destroyed what should have been a joyous moment for Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam title and became the first person from Japan to achieve that feat.
Instead of celebrating, Osaka was left crying as the crowd booed, not her, but how Williams was treated during the trophy ceremony, and apologizing for winning.
The most powerful moment came after the match during Williams’ press conference when she was essentially asked if she would change how she acted. In other words, she was asked to justify her emotions on court.
It was her response and refusal to apologize, for not doing anything wrong and for exhibiting behavior she felt would be acceptable in a man, that resonated with me and made me proud to have her representing American women’s tennis and women in general.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality and all kinds of stuff, and for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark,” Williams said.
“He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me, it blows my mind … I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman, and 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.”
Her breaking down at the end of those remarks made me feel those comments even more. If it resonated with me, I’m sure it resonated with many women, who have felt similar anger or exasperation for how they were treated differently from men at work, whether it’s having sexist remarks said about them that they pretend not to hear, being given less responsibility or chances for advancement than their male colleagues, or being expected to present themselves in a less aggressive way.
Williams may not have won the 2018 U.S. Open, but she won a lot more by reacting the way she did and refusing to accept how she was treated. She set an example for other women to not accept anything less than they deserve and demand to be treated with respect, as she did when she demanded that the chair umpire apologize to her for the insinuation that she cheated.