With bundles of raw talent combined with sheer athleticism, Serena Williams personifies the perfect tennis player, whose career record will go down in history. However, following a turbulent 6-2 6-4 loss in the US Open Final against Naomi Osaka on Saturday, which culminated in the player accusing umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism, this image of perfection has been shattered. Now she can never be considered a great sportsperson: only a skilled player.
The controversy began early in the second set, when Ramos gave the American a coaching violation following on-pitch communication between Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Spectators saw how this decision enraged the 23-time Grand Slam winner, as she quickly received another violation for smashing a racquet in frustration.
The penalty, which meant that Williams was penalised by a point, enraged Williams, who then launched a scathing attack at Ramos: “You are a liar. You will never be on a court of mine as long as you live. When are you going to give me my apology? Say you are sorry," before later calling the umpire a ‘thief’.
I am shocked that Williams has the audacity to tell Ramos that he will never share a court with the 6-time US Open champion. Umpires are the individuals who are responsible for upholding the integrity of a sport; there is no room for abuse of officials in any sport, especially one as stooped in tradition as tennis. A game of tennis, be it an amateur match or the Wimbledon final, cannot be conducted without an umpire who represents the traditional spirit of the game, and Serena is not bigger than the game.
Following the outburst, Ramos docked Williams a whole game. Many fans have felt that this punishment was perhaps too harsh on Williams, yet the Laws of Tennis clearly state that abuse of an official will not be tolerated and shall be penalised in line with the Point Penalty Schedule, which was utilised by Ramos.
In response, and at the real crux of the issue, Williams accused the umpire of sexism, saying: “He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’”.
It baffles me as to why sex has been brought into this argument. Surely this issue was a tennis matter between player and official; the fact that the player in question is female makes no difference.
In her statement, Williams repeated that the umpire had never penalised a male player for abuse. On the contrary, Ramos has clashed with male players, including stars Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, in the past, underlining consistent on-court discipline. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Murray was handed a code violation by Ramos for allegedly calling the official a ‘stupid umpire’. The former British No.1 then retorted that he had in fact said, “’stupid umpiring’, but if you want to be the star of the show, that’s fine.” It seems that this issue is more to do with pampered prima donna players, rather than the officials laying down the law.
I sympathise with Ramos, who has been unjustly plunged into a gender row for merely following the laws of tennis. Following the confusion that has ensued, I believe that the International Tennis Federation ought to release a statement backing Ramos. I suggest that the ITF carry out a wide scale evaluation and a clarification of the laws to ensure that every official mirrors Ramos’s discipline in response to abuse, therefore validating the umpire’s call.
Furthermore, whilst the world focuses on Williams’ accusations, the incident that began the snowballing of Serena’s self-destruction appears to have been brushed under the carpet. Coach Mouratoglou has subsequently admitted that he was in fact coaching Williams during the final from the stands, something that is also outlawed in tennis.
If the incidents that unfolded on Saturday night were to be scrutinized as isolated events, fans and critics alike would agree that by abusing the umpire and communicating with her coach, Williams breached the laws twice. However, by bringing gender into the debate, Williams has made the tennis community pick a side: those who stand with her, or those who endorse a ‘sexist’ umpire. This is dangerous, as the issue of cheating and abuse in such a high-profile sporting event has now been overlooked, while the debate surrounding sexism in tennis is dragged into the mire.
That is not to say that Williams has not made positive strides for women in sport. Her monopoly over the Grand Slams throughout the last 20 years has inspired millions of girls to pursue sport as a career. She was also a key proponent of pay parity in tennis, which led to each of the four Grand Slams awarding equal prize money for both the men’s and women’s game. Let’s not forget that less than a year ago Williams nearly died during childbirth, and has since recovered to incredibly reach two successive Grand Slam finals.
Therefore, by addressing the issue of gender inequality in tennis, can Williams be recognised as a true great sportsperson? No. To be a great sportsperson one must be gracious in victory and, more importantly, defeat. This is a skill that Williams lacks, which was underlined when she introduced the issue of sexism in tennis to excuse her poor performance in the US Open Final.
I do not deny that the issue of sexism is still rife in tennis and deeply troubling for the modern game. Female players are not allowed to change their shirts on court, are banned from wearing certain clothing, and are bemoaned by some male counterparts who believe that they deserve less prize money. However, as Serena Williams, former world No. 1 and 23-time Grand Slam Champion, hurled abuse at an umpire after she was caught cheating in a major final, it is clear to see that there are more issues than just sexism in tennis.