The US Open final descended into chaos after Williams launched a verbal tirade against the umpire. According to her critics, Williams behaved badly and her fate was self-inflicted. According to her fans, she was unfairly targeted by a sexist, egotistical man.

By Adam Hassan

Naomi Osaka (left) and Serena Williams (right)

Naomi Osaka (left) and Serena Williams (right)

This year’s US Open Women’s Singles final was contested between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, seeded 17th and 20th respectively. Williams, at the age of 36, was aiming to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Her opponent, Osaka, aged 20, was playing in her first ever Grand Slam final and was hoping to become the first Japanese player in history to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Naomi Osaka breezed through the first set as she played absolutely stunning tennis to take the set 6-2.

With Williams leading 1-0, 15-40 in the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams an official warning for on-court coaching, having seen her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gesturing to Serena with his hands (Mouratoglou admitted in an interview after the match that he had been coaching, but he claimed that everyone does it, which is true, but does not mean that his player can’t be punished for it). She came to the net and disputed it, saying, “We don’t have any code, and I know you don’t know that and I understand why you may have thought that was coaching, but I’m telling you it’s not. I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”

Serena took it as Ramos saying that she was cheating. It was far from that. The umpire saw clear communication from the coach to the player. It doesn’t really matter, in terms of the ruling, whether the player receives that message, but there was definitely a coaching message that was witnessed by the umpire, and the rules are that you are responsible for how your coach behaves, so he really couldn’t do anything other than giving a code of conduct. It wasn’t Carlos Ramos’ fault that Serena Williams took it as an attack on her integrity. He wasn’t telling her that she was a cheat, he was simply saying that her coach was coaching her, and that’s not allowed.

After breaking Osaka’s serve for the first time in the match, Williams was serving at 3-1, 30-15, however double-faulted two points in a row to bring up a break point. Osaka broke back to bring the set back on serve, causing Williams to smash her racquet in frustration. Ramos issued her a second code violation, this time for racquet abuse. As her second violation, she was docked a point. Upon hearing this, Williams raised the issue of her first code violation again with Ramos, as she pointed at Ramos and shouted, “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her. I have never cheated. And you owe me an apology.”

Osaka held serve the following game to level the set at 3-3, before breaking Williams’ serve a second time in the set to lead 4-3.

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At the following change of ends, Williams continued to furiously berate Ramos, saying, “You’re attacking my character. You owe me an apology. You will never ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry … How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.”

Ramos judged this to be a further code violation for verbal abuse; questioning an umpire and accusing him of being unfair, of lying, and of stealing a point, is putting into question their fairness and their quality as an umpire. Anything that questions an umpire’s fairness or honesty has to be penalised and credit to Ramos for having the courage to make that call against one of the greatest players of all time as she chased history on home soil.

As the third code violation of the match against Williams, Osaka was awarded the next game by default, bringing the score to 5-3 with Osaka one game away from victory. Boos began to rain down, generating incredible noise, as Williams refused to take to the court, saying: “Are you kidding me? Because I said you’re a thief. Because you stole a point from me. But I’m not a cheater. I told you to apologise to me.” She then demanded to speak to tournament referee Brian Earley and WTA supervisor Donna Kelso, to whom Williams indignantly claimed, “This is not fair. This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. To lose a game for saying that is not fair… There are men out here that do a lot worse and because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman you’re going to take this away from me?” Eventually, after extended delays, she returned to the baseline, serving out a game to love before Osaka showed remarkable composure to hold the final game that sealed her first Grand Slam win, as she won the match 6-2, 6-4. However, unfortunately, her winning seemed so anticlimactic in comparison to what was going on in the stadium.

The US Open crowd made their displeasure over Ramos’ calls known by booing throughout the end of the second set as well as during the trophy presentation, leading to Osaka pulling her visor down over her eyes to hide her tears during the ceremony. While the controversy proved divisive, most viewers were united in their distaste at how the crowd’s reaction soured the winning moment for Osaka, who was crying and inconsolable at the time, having just won her first Grand Slam. Ramos was not present to receive his token of appreciation as is normally the case in Grand Slam finals, which was the right call, because no one would have wanted to see the reaction he would’ve received. By the time Serena got to the trophy ceremony and saw that Naomi Osaka was standing there, about to receive the trophy amidst 23,000 people booing, she took the microphone and she said, “Let’s not boo anymore … let’s be positive. So congratulations, Naomi! And no more booing.” Serena obviously realised then that this was going too far, and this was Naomi Osaka’s moment now, regardless of the circumstances, and she’d absolutely earned that title. And Serena was the only person in the stadium who had the power to do that. And thank goodness she did. It was too late to rescue the moment for Naomi Osaka, but it was as good a salvage job as could be done at the time.

After the match, Serena Williams gave a ten minute press-conference, concluding with this headline-grabbing statement: “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for 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. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said thief. I mean, it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women … like Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine, like this is outrageous”.

Williams earned $1,85m (£1.43m) in prize money for reaching the final. She was fined $17,000 (£13,100) by the US Tennis Association (USTA): $4,000 for coaching, $3,000 for racquet abuse and $10,000 for verbal abuse. However, these fines are pale in comparison to her in-game penalties of losing a point and then a game – major punishments in any professional match, let alone a Grand Slam final.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) later issued a statement supporting Carlos Ramos’ umpiring during the match, stating: “Mr Ramos’ decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were reaffirmed by the US Open’s decision to fine Serena Williams for the three offences. Mr Ramos acted at all times with professionalism and integrity.”

The issue here is in the debate about whether the coaching rule should exist and in the inconsistent application of it. You can’t decry those who apply the rules as they exist, especially in a tournament where informal application of rules and soft power by umpires had been so controversial and so called into question. I’m sure Ramos had Mohamed Lahyani in the back of his mind. He played it straight. He applied the rules, as they’re written, and I’m fine with that. Patrick Mouratoglou’s right. It goes on all the time, and in the wider scheme of things, that’s not good. But Carlos Ramos didn’t do anything wrong. In a situation where it’s so unclear; where the integrity of the rules and their application and all the many grey areas have been so very exposed, I completely back him in taking a straight reading of the rules. I don’t blame him for not wanting to wander into those grey areas, given the recent events with officials.

Carlos Ramos

Carlos Ramos

On the other hand, Carlos Ramos has vast experience, and is the only umpire to have umpired a final at all four Grand Slams, and although everything that Ramos did was justifiable according to the rules, and according to the letter of the law Serena broke those rules, this was a situation that Ramos could have diffused. He could have explained what was going on much better. We don’t know if Serena was amenable to it at that point, but there was absolutely no attempt to diffuse the situation.

There are a lot of people saying that she broke rules, and he was within his rights to assess those violations. And that is true. Did Patrick coach her? Yes, he did. Did she smash her racquet? Yes, she did. Did she call him a thief? Yes, she did. However, if you can make it through life living ‘rules are rules’, come what may, then you clearly have no concept of the fact that rules are made by people, people who are subjective, and thus rules are also subjective. Rules are often archaic. Rules often need to be changed. They need to be challenged. And I just don’t understand how you can take such a militant, hard-line stand, championing rules, when this is a tennis match with so much context surrounding it. Therefore, the general feeling was that he could have delivered that first warning as a soft warning, by simply telling Serena that her coach was making hand gestures, and if he continued then he would have to give her an official warning. The situation could have been saved had he handled it like that, and an umpire, as well as delivering the judgement on the rules, also needs to understand the temperature of a match and an occasion.

Personally, I absolutely think he could have gone down the soft warning route, but I don’t necessarily think he should or ought to have done. It wouldn’t have been wrong for him to do so, and of course things would be different, but I don’t think he was wrong to act the way he did and I certainly understand it within the circumstances of the tournament.

Billie Jean King, former US Open Champion and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), was supportive of Williams, tweeting following the match: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard.”

My personal view on Billie Jean King’s comments, along with those made by the WTA, which were very much in agreement with King, is that, in many instances, they would be absolutely right. In this particular instance, however, it really shocked me that they’ve selected this incident to go out on a limb on. Of all the egregious instances of sexism that can be seen almost every day, this isn’t the one. There are so many other things to take strong stances on. I believe sexism is rife in tennis, but I personally didn’t see any evidence of sexism in any of the actions that were taken by Carlos Ramos. A much more obvious example of sexism at this year’s US Open which the WTA could have used as an example of the discrimination experienced by female tennis players is the incident involving Alizé Cornet, which Williams referred to at the end of her post-match press conference.

In the first round of the US Open, Alizé Cornet came back to the court after a heat break for the extreme heat in New York, in between the second and third sets. She had changed her shirt while she was off-court, but unfortunately she had been rushing and had put it on back-to-front. She wasn’t allowed to leave the court again to fix it, so she swiftly removed her shirt while standing behind the baseline and put it back on the right way. She was wearing a sports bra, so there was nothing shocking about it, but she got a code violation for it. This was a clear example of sexism because men can change their shirts whenever they want to and however many times they want to. And this was out of necessity, so to then be given a code violation is absurd, and the WTA really should have taken a much stronger stance on this than they did.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of William’s perception that Ramos’ umpiring was sexist is that historically, Ramos has had several heated disagreements with male tennis players – with different results. Nick Kyrgios told him to his face that his call was ‘f*cking bullsh*t’, and there was no violation assessed for that. Novak Djokovic brushed him for a line call at the French Open. He literally made physical contact with Ramos, and yet he was not penalised. In Williams’ case, the penalties that Ramos issued didn’t reflect the tolerance he has shown in the past for male players.

The saddest element of this saga is how Naomi Osaka’s first Grand Slam win has been so overshadowed. There’s an unavoidable feeling that Osaka’s accomplishment in defeating a 23-time Grand Slam champion is just a footnote, considering all the drama. She was absolutely unflappable against Serena Williams. If you were looking for nerves from a first time Slam finalist at 20 years old, playing your idol, it was not there. She was beating Serena comfortably, even before the conflict started.

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Being a champion is not just about playing good tennis; it’s about handling moments. So many players can play incredible tennis, but not everybody can hold it together at the biggest moments in their entire careers, in their entire lives, and still win. She didn’t blink. She didn’t blink when she was closing in on victory. She didn’t blink when she had 23,000 people booing. She didn’t blink when Serena Williams was getting incredibly angry and escalating the situation. She played no part in making this happen, and yet she had her winning moment spoilt. For her to beat her idol, under those circumstances, was an absolutely remarkable achievement. The way she dealt with everything that was happening, and the way she managed to hold serve in that final game to win the match, showed an enormous amount of composure for someone so young. On a night on which accusations of thievery and cheating unfolded, it’s important to remember that in many people’s eyes, Osaka was robbed too.