Why does tennis hate its greatest player?

September 13, 2018

Alpana Mehta looks at the latest incident in the long history of bigoted mistreatment of Serena Williams by the sport that she’s done so much to popularize.

LAST SATURDAY’S highly anticipated U.S. Open Women’s Singles final between the legendary Serena Williams and rising young star Naomi Osaka instead turned into another demonstration of the sexism and racism at the heart of the professional tennis world.

Reaction to Williams’ angry response to a series of controversial calls by the chair umpire has been polarized. Many players and fans have rallied behind the game’s greatest player, protesting the double standards she faces, while some umpires are threatening to boycott Williams’ future matches, and an Australian newspaper has the gall to claim “free speech” as justification for publishing a racist cartoon of the champ.

All of this has overshadowed the tremendous achievement of the 20-year old Osaka, who was playing against her idol in her first-ever Grand Slam match — and carrying the weight of vying to be the first Japanese player to win a major tennis title.

But her historic victory was tainted by the outrageous rulings of chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who added another chapter to the sport’s disgraceful history of mistreating perhaps its all-time greatest player.

Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open
Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open

Ramos hit Williams during the match with code-of-conduct violations — the first for supposedly receiving illegal coaching, the second for smashing her racket, and the last for then unleashing this angry speech at Ramos:

For you to attack my character is wrong. You owe me an apology. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. You stole a point from me. You are a thief, too.

This last “verbal abuse” violation resulted in Osaka being given an entire game, which all but ended the match. Afterwards, Williams was hit with $17,000 in fines.

SERENA’S OUTBURST was far from unprecedented in the high-pressure world of a Grand Slam tennis final. She didn’t swear, as many other players have done thousands of times — including the oft-cited model of civility, Roger Federer. In fact, she tried to calmly reason with the umpire until it became clear that he was punishing her for daring to speak up, at which point she went off.

For seasoned tennis fans, Serena’s “abuse” was relatively mild. It’s widely understood that umpires should allow players in this tense and high-powered sport to let off steam and show emotion. In fact, there’s a movie currently playing in theaters that glorifies John McEnroe’s legendary on-court tantrums as essential to his athletic genius.

But Serena Williams is a Black woman, and so she had to take on not only the sensational Osaka, but also the clear abuse of authority by a chair umpire who wanted to put her in her place for daring to challenge a man.

Soon after she was hit with the game penalty, she tearfully approached tournament referee Brian Earley and told him, “You know my character. This is not right. To lose a game for saying that, it’s not fair. How many other men do things? There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things. It’s because I’m a woman, and that’s not right.”

Serena Williams wasn’t the only player to endure sexist double standards at this year’s U.S. Open. Just a few days before the final, Alizé Cornet was fined for taking off her shirt to reverse it during an oppressively humid match — an outrageous punishment in a sport in which male players routinely take their shirts off to cool off during breaks.

Sexism in tennis is often embraced as “tradition” by the sport’s officials, but behind the actual traditions underneath other euphemisms like “civility” and “sportsmanship” are class-antagonism and subservience to empire. It was only a few short years ago that Wimbledon officials expected men on Centre Court to bow — and women to curtsy — to the Royal Box.

OVER THE course of their exceptionally long careers, Serena and her older sister Venus have endured not only this condescending and restrictive sexism, but outright hostility — most notably at the finals of the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, when Serena was booed throughout the match and her father was called the n-word in the stands — from many officials, fans and sometimes competitors resentful of women tennis players who are Black and proud.

Serena has overcome this ugliness to become not only the greatest player of all time, but an important change-maker.

It was a series of horrible calls against Williams in a 2004 U.S. Open match that led the tournament to introduce instant replay. A controversial foot fault called against Williams in 2009 — and her outraged reaction — helped expand its use.

Serena has been a vocal proponent of racial and gender pay equity both in tennis and all of society, and her opposition to reducing the rankings of players who take time off to give birth led the U.S. Open to modify the policy.

When Spike Lee compared her to Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, Serena’s courtside response was telling:

To be compared to Ali or Jordan, I really have no words. Namely Ali, because he did so much for the sport, he did so much for the world, for everyone. That’s what I want to do, and that’s what I want to be remembered for. It’s not what I do out here, but how I can inspire people off the court. That’s my dream.

Three days earlier, blackballed pro football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid brought Reid’s niece to see Williams play. She visited them after the match and told the Associated Press:

I think every athlete, every human and definitely every African American should be completely grateful and honored how Colin and Eric are doing so much more for the greater good. I feel like they obviously have great respect from a lot of their peers, especially other athletes, people that really are looking for social change.”

SERENA AND Venus Williams have greatly increased the popularity of tennis in the U.S. They are responsible for the hundreds of children, especially girls of color, who are entering tennis programs today.

And yet Serena continues to endure abuse from the sport to which she has given so much. At this year’s French Open — her first major tournament since giving birth, she wore a black “cat suit” that she said made her feel like a Black Panther-style superhero and was for “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce”

But the president of the French Tennis Federation declared that the outfit didn’t “respect the game and place,” and declared that it would be banned from next year’s tournament. This announcement was even more outrageous given that Williams had also explained that the cat suit was designed to increase circulation after she had suffered potentially life threatening postnatal blood clots following the birth of her daughter.

Williams has been drug-tested four times more frequently than other players on the tour, despite never having tested positive in her long career.

Her anger during matches, though common fare for world-class competitors, has been pathologized because it comes from a Black woman. At the 2009 U.S. Open final, a lineswoman told the chair umpire that she “felt threatened” after Williams yelled at her.

It’s impossible to count the number of times Serena’s body has been hyper-sexualized by match commentators — or been grossly insulted by racists.

On Tuesday, an Australian newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. published a cartoon portraying Williams as a grotesque racial caricature and the Japanese-Haitian Osaka as a victimized blonde waif — and then responded to global criticism by republishing the cartoon on its cover as a statement of defiance against so-called political correctness.

BUT WHILE many of the authorities who run tennis remain stuck in their bigoted ways, millions have been inspired by Serena’s life and career.

That was clear on Saturday when fans booed Carlos Ramos out of the arena and then turned on every U.S. Open official who dared to speak during the trophy presentation, at which point Williams graciously asked them to stop booing and give Osaka the proud moment that she deserved.

Many current and former players came to Williams’ defense as well, including the legendary pioneer Billie Jean King in a brilliant op-ed for the Washington Post:

Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of color...Women have a right, though, to speak out against injustice — as much right as a man.

I found myself in similar situations in my career; once, I even walked off the court in protest. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it may have been one of my more powerful ones. I understand what motivated Williams to do what she did. And I hope every single girl and woman watching yesterday’s match realizes they should always stand up for themselves and for what they believe is right. Nothing will ever change if they don’t.

Serena Williams is one of the best athletes in history, and she is a Black woman. In her post-match remarks, she showed that she has no intention of backing down to anyone in her sport on or off the court:

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.”...

But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have [equality]. Like [Alizé] Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine. This is outrageous, you know?

And I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just 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.

We can only hope that after witnessing this latest dose of racism and sexism in professional tennis, Naomi Osaka and others, in appreciating the trail that Serena Williams has blazed for them, commit themselves to following her example to be fierce and uncompromising champions.

Further Reading

From the archives