The US Open, just concluded, was one hot mess, bookended by searing temps at the beginning of the tourney and a searing controversy involving Serena Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos at the end whose ramifications are apt to ripple for some time.
In a sense, the weather foreshadowed the charges of sexism that were really about the lack of Alexandrian leadership – leadership from the front – at tennis’ top. Amid conditions that had fans passing out and players plunging into ice baths, Alize Cornet adjusted a backward shirt from the baseline that must’ve been as uncomfortable as hell and that briefly exposed a modest – emphasis on the word “modest” – sports bra. She was issued a code violation – players are supposed to be seated in their chairs while changing – that the Open rescinded after criticism that a woman’s body was once again being objectified and sexualized.
But if women are penalized for what they wear on the court (or momentarily don’t) – see Serena’s catsuit controversy at the French Open-- if they are expected to be polite at all times, which we’ll get to in a moment, the men are expected to suck it up at all times. I was floored to discover that it took extreme heat for the Open to extend to the men the 10-minute heat break that heretofore had only been given to the women — and then only on certain days. Why hadn’t the men been afforded the same treatment as the women? They already play three out of five sets – instead of the women’s two out of three – for the same prize money. But then, the men are supposed to be “tougher” than the women.
All of which brings us to the disastrous women’s final between Williams and Naomi Osaka. After Williams received some telegraphed advice from coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the stands – a big-time no-no – Ramos issued her a warming. He gave her a second warning for racket abuse and then a final one for verbal abuse. (She called him a liar and a thief.) That cost her a game in a match in which she was struggling not only to come back as a first-time mother but to cement her legacy as the greatest player to date by tying Margaret Court Smith’s record of 24 singles Slam titles. Ramos – and, let’s face it, Osaka – was denying Williams her date with destiny.
Ramos — a stickler for the rules, as is his right — is also a big destiny denier. See his tangling with Andy Murray at the Rio Olympics in 2016, in which Murray accused him of stupid umpiring and, tellingly, of wanting to be the star of the show; with Rafael Nadal at the 2017 French Open, in which Nadal accused him of treating players like machines; and with Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, when Djokovic accused Ramos of losing his mind. (What do all of these encounters have in common? The players involved went on to win the events.)
None of these encounters resulted in as severe a penalty as Williams received, perhaps ultimately for not conforming to the stereotype of a lady. Even if they did, Ramos and tennis should be smart enough to see that the context was different. When you levy a penalty against a woman and a black one at that, you open yourself up to charges of the appearance of sexism and racism. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t do your job. But you have to be prudent.
Yet Ramos’ approach appears to be going after the alpha in each match. In the case of the women’s final, he made the match about himself, as Billie Jean King noted. But Williams’ inelegant though intelligible response compounded Ramos’. Williams in turn made the match about herself instead of about the contest between her and her poised but visibly upset opponent. Her inability to go inside herself and channel her rage into a better performance engulfed the post-match trophy ceremony and rendered the men’s final the following day, in which Djokovic defeated Juan Del Potro in straight sets, anticlimactic, forcing Djokovic into the awkward position of trying to defend Williams and Ramos.
All of this could have been avoided if tennis’ officials would just review – and if necessary – revise their rules; communicate the rules and apply them evenhandedly, regardless of whether the players are rich or poor, famous or unfamiliar, male or female.
Tags: US Open, Serena Williams, Carlos Ramos, Naomi Osaka, Juan Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, women’s final,