Serena Williams is a great tennis player. One of the best women tennis players of all-time, arguably the best, and a tremendous athlete, period. Indeed, she has won 23 Grand Slam titles in tennis -- not only more than any woman...but more than anyone. And to come back so soon from given birth to play in the finals of the U.S. Open is a stunning achievement. And there is no question that there are double standards in sports for men and women. (There are in life, so sports is not likely to be different.)
After the continuing controversy at the U.S. Open women's tennis final over the weekend, and an outpouring of commentary, much of which painted Ms. Williams as being unfairly treated -- as a woman and a black athlete -- and praised for how graciously she handled the aftermath, while some noted that the issues were of her making, deserved and her history of bullying, I wanted to take a more-objective look at the situation.
It's long because I wanted to be fair, which requires detail and perspective.
The short recap is that during the finals against Naomi Osaka, Ms. Williams had a warning issued against her for getting coaching during the match (which is against tennis rules) by her coach in the stands, who was seemingly giving hand signals. She got upset and insisted repeatedly she never cheats. Later, after losing a point, she angrily slammed her racquet on the court, breaking it, which is code violation. Combined with her earlier warning, together that brought about the automatic loss of a point. She then began berating the umpire repeatedly that "You owe me an apology," calling him a liar and a thief for causing her to lose a point. This brought her a game penalty, forfeiting that particular game. Later, during the awards ceremony, when the trophy was being presented, fans began booing the result, which brought winner-Osaka (whose long-stated hero is Williams) to tears. This got Ms. Williams to put her arm on the winner and tell the crowd not to boo her. She subsequently was fined $17,000 for her actions on the court.
Here's a near-full 14-minute video that has edited events of the match together, including an interview at the end with Serena Williams' coach.
Now, a closer look.
It seems an incredibly silly rule that coaches can't coach their players during a match. Coaches in all other sports give advice. And when it's done in tennis, penalties are rarely called. Moreover, this was the U.S. Open finals. I don't think the warning should probably have been given. But -- it is against the rules. And it was just a warning. If there had been no other violations, no racquet slamming, it would have been meaningless. Moreover, as much as Serena Williams insisted there was no cheating, her own coach said after the match -- which you can see on the video above -- that, yes, he was giving hand signals to her. He noted that all coaches do it, and that it's rarely called for a penalty. But rarely is not "never." And he admitted doing it. So, her repeated insistence that he wasn't sending her signals, that she wasn't cheating, simply isn't true. Even the pro analyst during the TV broadcast -- no less than tennis great Chris Evert -- said at the time it was happening, not commenting after the fact, which you can see at the 5:00 mark, "Serena was watching her coach give hand signals."
Further, Ms. Williams acknowledges seeing her coach, but insists that he was only giving her a "thumbs-up." Not only does video clearly show that he's not remotely giving a "thumbs-up," but rather is moving his hands around to position her. And again, to be clear, the coach said that he was giving illegal hand signals. Not a "thumbs up" good-going sign. (She had lost the first set 6-2, and was behind in the second, potentially-concluding set by 4-3, so "way to go" thumbs-up, while possible, seems unlikely.)
Also, it's important to know that the umpire did not steal a point from her for that. Again, it was just a warning. To reiterate, no penalty was given. None. It was only later, after she was so angry at missing a shot that she slammed her racquet on the ground, demolishing it that she got the penalty, which was tied to the earlier warning. Without her own later action of anger, an action against tennis rules, she would never have gotten the penalty assessed. It's possible that she thought the umpire had removed the warning, after the two subsequently spoke, which could have caused confusion and her surprise. (Though nothing on tape has her saying it.) But again, the penalty point was only assessed after she smashed her racquet, which is a code violation she caused entirely on her own.
That brings us to the matter of game penalty for her outburst. It has been suggested that this was sexist, since men get away with much more than women. And there is absolutely truth to that. Men get away with more, and probably a lot more. What is wrong, though, is the perception that men don't get penalized for anger and bullying of the umpires. Players like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastate were renowned for their abusive actions on the court, and were often penalized. Just recently in June, Nick Kyrgios was fined $17,500 for his unsportsman actions during a contest. Two years earlier, he was fined $25,000. So, men absolutely do get penalized. And fined. It's reasonable to say that things aren't equal in men and women's tennis. It is not reasonable to say that men don't get penalized. Whether Serena Williams deserved a game penalty is another matter. And she probably didn't. In fact, during the broadcast, Chris Evert says that she doesn't think that Serena Williams' anger was deserving of a game penalty, that she isn't yelling or using any profanity -- though she also notes that it was the third warning Williams had received, saying that this is more warnings than most players get, and that her first two warnings were deserved. Additionally, it's a bit odd to accuse an official of sexism when your opponent is the same gender as you are. Yes, there do appear to be different standards during this women's match than would be at a men's match. And that's not right. But -- it wasn't that Serena Williams was treated by different standards while competing with a man, but by the exact same standards as her female opponent. The playing field was level. Ms. Osaka, though a woman, didn't have any penalty points assessed against her. But that's because her coach wasn't signaling her, she didn't smash and destroy her racquet, and she didn't berate the umpire at extended length and try to bully him.
It's also worth keeping in mind that Serena Williams, great a player as she is, has a history of being abusive to officials and trying to bully them. At the 2009 U.S. Open, she screamed at a linesman, "If I could, I'd take this ball and shove it down your throat." Even her mother, Oracene Price, later said that her daughter "could have kept her cool." She was fined $10,500 for the action, for which she refused to apologize -- and that certainly was her right. It just adds perspective of her demanding the umpire apologize to her, for assessing a penalty.
I would also suggest, when addressing the question of sexism and fairness, that having a history of bullying officials when your opponents don't might be unfair to those opponents (of the same gender), who in essence are being penalized for following the tennis rules of sportsmanship -- if any officials choose to favor a bullying opponent because they want to avoid being the target of abuse. Abuse and rants and complaining which brings the match to a screeching halt, breaking the flow of the opponent who is winning, and putting control back in the hands of the person bullying. Which is often the intentional point of bullying. Indeed, watching the video, we see Ms. Osaka forced to stand around and do nothing but wait, just two games from winning the championship match, while the game is delayed at length. So, rather than being as sexist as some want to position the events, the decisions also have the effect of balancing the scales to be fair to both women.
Where I think the umpire may have been wrong is that, before awarding the game penalty, it probably would have been best if he warned Serena Williams that if she kept up her abuse he would be penalizing her. That wasn't at all necessary for him to do -- there had been three warnings already -- but since this was the U.S. Open final, some more discretion would have worked better, I think.
Issues at the match weren't limited to what happened on the court, but also comments by Ms. Williams at the award ceremony afterwards, telling the crowd not to boo. And that was indeed a proper, thoughtful thing to do. She gets points for that. Whether it raises to the level of such great sportsmanship is another matter I'm not sure of. After all, it was her own actions, slamming her racquet in anger, relentlessly berating the umpire, demanding an apology, being out of sorts for the remainder of the match and refusing to shake the umpire's hand at the end that together pretty much riled the crowd to its angry response. So, yes, it was very graceful of her and considerate to tell the crowd not to boo and put her arm around Ms. Osaka -- but she was the one who had caused that crowd reaction and brought the winner to tears in the first place. So, good as her words were, and they were good, you don't get as many points for fixing a problem you caused as one might otherwise wish.
One final matter. In the press conference after the match, Ms. Williams was asked a question about her actions and how that reflected on her being a new mother. It was seen by many as an unfair, sexist question which never would have been asked of a man -- and I agree. It was a thoughtless, bad question. Yet even here there is perspective. That's because what's overlooked is that during one of her rants to the umpire, she herself brought up her child and how "I have a daughter and I stand for what's right with her." (This comes at the 3:00 mark of the video.) I don't think most men tennis players would say that, either. If the reporter asked his question because of that, it puts it in a different perspective. That said, I suspect he didn't ask his question because of that. Which is why the question was most-likely wrong-headed.
Was her $17,000 fine justified? I don't know the rules of tennis well enough, but it would seem that a warning, point penalty and game penalty will bring about a fine to anyone. And since she has been fined previously, as have many players, including recently, it seems in line with tennis standards.
In the end, it seems to me that mistakes were made on all sides. The rule against coaching from the stands seems extremely silly and should be changed, though it is a rule. But since it's rarely penalized, it could have been overlooked here given that it was the U.S. Open finals. (Though the same argument could be made that since it was the U.S. Open finals the requirements are higher.) I also think it would have been reasonable to warn Serena Williams before assessing the game penalty, even if not required. And the U.S. Open officials should have done a significantly better job informing the crowd about what was going on and why decisions had been made.
But having mistakes on all sides doesn't mean the mistakes were equal. The U.S. Open officials did make mistakes. But they were all in reaction to a player whose coach acknowledged breaking the rules, and a player who angrily destroyed a racquet against the rules, and who continually berated an umpire in an effort to bully him, later refusing to shake his hand, forcing her opponent to stand around and wait. And who let what was just a warning get the better of her and lose total focus when she was behind.
There are double-standards in tennis for men and women, and that's patently unfair -- though both players here were women being judged equally against one another. And as harshly has Serena Williams was penalized, she has won 23 Grand Slam titles, more than any athlete in history, so although she has had greater hurdles to get over than her competitors, she has clearly succeeded far beyond all others in the sport, thanks to her significant skills. It seems to me, that for whatever mistakes were made on all sides, a dispassionate look suggests she was penalized because she was in the wrong, repeatedly. And the reason she lost the match -- 6-2, 6-4 -- was not because she got a warning for her coach giving her illegal signals, a point penalty and later a game penalty, but because she let it cause her to lose total focus in the second set, when she was behind and just two games from defeat...and because her opponent Naomi Osaka played better.