I became a big tennis fan at age 18. I was at the old Forest Hills Stadium (the West Side Tennis Club) in September of 1968 when Arthur Ashe beat Tom Okker at the first U.S. (truly) Open. During the 1970s & 1980s I watched (on television and in person at the “new” Flushing Meadows complex) as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe raged and ranted on courts from Paris to London to New York, and everywhere in between. Never, in all those years (and certainly not at a Grand Slam event), did I ever see either of them penalized a game for their behavior. Yet that’s what happened to Serena Williams on Saturday during the Women’s Final of the United States Open. In what has now become the subject of numerous articles, op-eds, and talking points on tv news shows, people are debating whether Serena’s treatment by Umpire Carlos Ramos was sexist and unfair or whether her conduct deserved the penalties she was assessed. There may be some irony that Les Moonves is leaving CBS under a cloud of workplace abuse at the same time Serena was so severely penalized by a male umpire this weekend.
While there is no doubt Serena lost her cool throughout the match, overshadowing Naomi Osaka’s brilliant playing, I think we need to consider just what happened Saturday. There are several thoughtful articles I would recommend reading (Jonathan Liew in the U.K.’s Independent-- https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/tennis/serena-williams-us-open-final-umpire-naomi-osaka-flushing-meadows-a8529611.html -- Billie Jean King’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post - www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/09/09/serena-is-still-treated-differently-than-male-athletes/?utm_term=.225f0c75f0f3l –-- as well as Juliet Macur’s piece in the Monday New York Times www.nytimes.com/2018/09/09/sports/tennis/serena-williams-us-open-equality.htm) but, ultimately, I think people will come down either defending or castigating Serena based on their own predilections.
From my perspective, I agree with Billie Jean King that the umpire inserted himself into this match in ways that he shouldn’t have. And, as noted in Liew’s article, we should consider the situation from Serena’s perspective. Saturday’s match came on the heels of the announcement that the “catsuit” Serena wore at the French Open this year (an homage to The Black Panther) will be banned from that event. Tennis, as a sport, of course is vestigial in many ways --- with dress codes at Wimbledon (and now, the French Open) and men’s tennis given greater status than women’s. If Arthur Ashe was the “Jackie Robinson” of tennis then the Williams sisters are certainly Rosa Parks on steroids!
In light of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, as well as the emergence of the blatantly racist/misogynist Trumpist movement, I don’t believe we can simply shrug Saturday’s “incident” as a “law-enforcing” official simply sticking to the “rule of (tennis) law.” There are folks citing Ramos’s penalizing Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray --- but he never awarded their opponent a game! While Serena’s behavior may have crossed the line, strictly regarding the rules, it hardly compares to French (male) tennis pro Benoit Pare’s racquet abuse at the Citi Open in Washington, DC (www.usatoday.com/story/sports/tennis/2018/08/01/benoit-paire-citi-open-tantrum-marcos-baghdatis/877988002/) only a few weeks earlier --- which only cost Pare one point in penalties. Again, my own experience from watching Connors & McEnroe (and Ilie “Nasty” Nastase before them!) makes Serena’s outburst hardly seismic.
Can we separate what happened on Saturday in Flushing Meadow from the racism and sexism we know permeates our society? I don’t think so. It’s a shame the drama unfolded the way it did, stealing the spotlight from Osaka’s sterling performance, but this was the tournament where a woman was penalized for taking her shirt off (for a moment!) while men sit without their shirts on during changeovers! We won’t even get into the implicit racism we still witness in sports (starting with the “President’s” castigation of NFL players protesting for social justice). If you’re as old as I am you remember how Patrick Ewing was treated when playing for Georgetown (opposing fans blatantly displayed “gorilla” posters as well as taunting his “intelligence”), or how Warren Moon (a black quarterback) was relegated to starting his career in Canada because the NFL didn’t believe African Americans could “lead” a professional team.
We can neither avoid nor deny our history in these United States. That we have been a sexist and racist nation from our inception should inform us as to who we are and why we are still struggling with the legacies of those prejudices. As we move ahead in this 21st century and the nation becomes more diverse, more “feminized,” and more just (we hope) we need to take note of “incidents” like Serena’s at the US Open as part of an ongoing struggle to live up to our ideals.