Battle of the sexes: redux

Several weeks ago, the world gathered in humid New York City to watch as the best tennis players in the world competed in the last Grand Slam of the tennis season: the US Open. There were ups, like Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan, becoming champion. There were downs, like Roger Federer losing his match against Swiss player Dominic Thiem. And there was a catastrophe, where Serena Williams was unjustly berated and penalized for her behavior during the final against Naomi Osaka. While stories surrounding inequality in tennis rarely make headlines, the truth is that women—especially women of color—consistently experience, and have experienced for years, vastly harsher consequences for minor offenses than male tennis players who commit the same offenses. After this U.S. Open final, it is clear that the tennis governing bodies around the world—not just in the U.S.—need to reevaluate the double standard placed on women in the sport.

For those unaware of the situation, I will briefly summarize. Serena Williams was playing Naomi Osaka in the women’s tennis final. The umpire of the match, Carlos Ramos, handed Williams a total of three violations during the second set. The first violation was a warning for a coaching violation, where Williams’ coach made a gesture at Williams, and Williams had to pay the price. The second one was for racket abuse when Serena threw her racket on the ground and broke it. The third, however, is where we run into the most problems: Williams was penalized for “verbal abuse” after calling Ramos “a thief” for taking a point away from her for his assessment of “coaching” going on between Williams’ coach and herself.

The first violation—the “coaching” violation—was a product of Williams’ coach who is sitting in the stands making a gesture toward Williams. The problem in this situation is that even for the most experienced umpires, the coaching violation rule remains an ambiguous one. According to the rules, any communication between a player and coach—be it audible or visible—can be construed as coaching. Players have been known to have special ways of communicating with their coaches, for example if the coach adjusts his hat, that might signal to the player to play at the net more. However, Williams denied receiving hand signals from her coach, saying to Ramos, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose.” Ramos agreed with her, saying, “I know that,” implying that the warning had been withdrawn because of Williams’ dispute. It was not, however. Williams most likely did not even see her coach attempting to give her hand signals, yet she was penalized for it anyways, even after gaining the umpire’s understanding of the situation. However, Williams did not know that the warning was still on the table, which leads directly to the second violation.

In tennis, a first violation no matter the reason is always a warning. However, after a warning, the next violation is a point penalty regardless. Williams, thinking she was free from warnings, smashed her racket on the court in a moment of distress, believing that this would only result in a warning. However, Ramos penalized Williams with a point penalty, leading Serena to her final violation.

Williams, obviously distressed and upset at the injustice against her, approached the umpire and called him a “thief” for taking a point from her for the racket abuse and coaching violation. He then served his final penalty—verbal abuse, causing her to lose the match.

There are people out there suggesting things retroactively that Ramos could have done to deescalate the situation before Williams even uttered the word “thief.” However, this is obsolete. Yes, Ramos could have politely warned Williams that she would lose the match if she got another violation, but for this argument, minor umpire duties are unimportant. The fact is, Serena should not have been punished for calling Ramos a “thief” for taking her point away.

After the match, tennis legends rushed to Twitter to show their support for Williams. Tennis icon Billie Jean King defended Williams, saying that the umpire was wrong for issuing the violation and that she was dealt a double standard. She went on to explain that when a man shows emotion on the court, he is praised for being bold, but when a woman does it, she is labelled “hysterical.” Former U.S. tennis player Andy Roddick tweeted, “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty,” explaining the double standard in tennis that he has directly benefitted from. Tennis legend John McEnroe, now a commentator for many tennis matches, famously castigated umpires, making the phrase “You cannot be serious” a household maxim after he approached the umpire during one of his sets and said this to him.

All this goes to show sexism and racism are rampant in the sport of tennis. This match came after French tennis player Alize Cornet was penalized for briefly removing her shirt on the court. During a break in a game, Cornet left the court to change shirts. Upon reentering the court, she realized her shirt was on backwards and proceeded to take it off so that she could turn it around. She received a code violation for this. Meanwhile, men can be seen on the court completely shirtless to cool off in between sets. John Isner changed his shirt eleven times during a match in the U.S. Open. Rafael Nadal regularly rips his shirt off after winning matches. Yet Cornet could not even remove her shirt for a brief moment just to turn it around.

While men can say what they want, wear what they want and act however they want, women in tennis are subject to the confines of a box delineating “proper” ladylike behavior. For women of color like Serena Williams, this box is even smaller, as any black woman expressing emotion is immediately seen as an “angry black lady” by the media and society. If women are going to be punished for saying the same things men say, then the real-life Battle of the Sexes will never reach an end.

For Ramos to deliver these penalties is one thing, but for the International Tennis Federation to back him up by releasing this statement: “Carlos Ramos is one of the most experienced and respected umpires in tennis. Mr. Ramos’ decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were re-affirmed by the U.S. Open’s decision to fine Serena Williams for the three offenses,” is absolutely garbage. If the governing bodies in tennis cannot see their own hypocrisy in defending this umpire, the road for women in tennis is set at an even steeper incline than previously thought.