The U.S. Open Women’s Championship match took an unexpected turn on Saturday, Sept. 8. World famous American tennis champion Serena Williams played up-and-coming Naomi Osaka from Japan. Throughout the match, Serena received three code violations – the first for receiving coaching communications from her coach via hand signals, the second for throwing and breaking her tennis racket and the third for calling the umpire a “thief” during the course of heated sideline conversations. The three violations were imposed by the well-respected chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. As the discipline progressively increased with each violation, the more the match sporadically spun out of control.
Frustrated, embarrassed and angry with the umpiring and the outcome of the loss of the U.S. Open Championship, Williams claimed the three violations to be sexist. But upon closer inspection, were all three of these code violations sexist? No. They were not sexist at all. The first two violations – coaching and racket abuse – are two of the most fundamental rules of tennis, and Williams being a female tennis player does not change the fact that she broke both of these basic rules. Given her success in the sport, these are easy rules to follow, and she should had never disregarded them and underestimated the power they could have had over the championship match. Therefore, these two violations were well deserved. The third violation, however, was not.
The third violation was the last and most crucial blow to Williams. Tensions were already high as both Williams and Osaka were competing to win a major title. Ramos’ call for a third violation against Williams immediately handed Osaka a game, which gave Osaka an overwhelming 5-3 lead over Williams in the second set of the championship match. In a perfect word, Ramos would have given Williams a warning, maintaining the small fragment of civility that was left on the court and creating a less impactful disruption to the outcome of the game for both players. As Williams repeatedly expressed her frustration over the three code violations to Ramos, and the crowd moaned with aggravation and confusion, it was easy for those on the court and watching on television to remember that we do not live in a perfect world.
Ramos’ third violation to Williams does display the sexism that has been discreetly looming throughout the history of the sport of tennis. Male tennis players have said foul statements on the court, which range from curse words to heinous remarks, and this crude vocabulary only increases when the match is not favoring them. This type of informal behavior is commonly attributed to the conduct professional tennis player John McEnroe displayed on the court throughout his successful tennis career. His ill-mannered behavior on the court is legendary, and by far exceeds the level of disrespect Williams exhibited to the chair umpire by calling him a “thief” during Saturday’s championship match. In response to this controversial match, McEnroe released a statement, saying “I’ve said far worse…[Serena’s] right about the guys being held to a different standard, there’s no question.” Through this statement, McEnroe provides clear evidence through his own tennis career and the careers of other professional male tennis players that during their matches, they have not received a code violation for the obscene language that they used on the court, and have only received a mere warning.
Similarly to McEnroe, Williams’ success will soon and, if not already, have her considered to be one of the most influential and legendary players tennis has ever had. If an outcry on a national and international platform by a star player is the type of signal tennis officials need to make change, then they should be ashamed. The response to the U.S. Open Championship match has been enormous and seemingly never-ending, and the days following the championship match have been embarrassing for the tennis community. Deservingly, the U.S. Open Championship match will forever serve as a long-overdue wake up call for the sport of tennis in the years to come.
Despite the renowned career Williams will leave behind, controversy on the tennis court is not unfamiliar territory. Williams has had several controversies with officials at U.S. Open matches in the past. However, there seems to be more that lies behind the frustration she displays on the court than an overreaction to a code violation. As an African-American who has achieved unparalleled success in a sport that is predominately white, Williams is a walking magnet for the sexism and racism that minorities face, not just within the sport of tennis, but in our nation and throughout the world. Due to Williams’ large influence, the responsibility to combat both sexism and racism heavily relies on her every move. Williams’ demeanor, performance, words, sponsors, posts, physical appearance and attire are all being watched on and off the court. Each must be in proper coordination and alignment in order to create the significant impact that is needed to accomplish the goal that her entire career has stood for – improving tennis and making it a more equal playing field for males and females of all races.
Serena Williams breaks the role of the stereotypical tennis player – white, tiny and quiet. Williams is black, powerful and to those that overlook the inequalities that are hidden within the sport, outspoken. But is being outspoken, in a sport that is crying for improvement and change, a disrespectful quality for a major champion to have? No. It is a quality that every major champion needs.