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Foul Moods, Foul Play, and Naomi Osaka—The US Open Women’s Finals

The Women’s Singles Finals of the US Open on 8th September saw a rare intersection of an alleged gender bias, the sportsman’s spirit, and caught somewhere in this crossfire—a twenty-year old’s maiden grand slam title.  As Serena Williams fought it out with the notoriously strict umpire Carlos Ramos, it wasn’t long before a major chunk of the tennis world rushed to her side, chiming in with allegations of sexism and gender-based bigotry.

Before one can delve into an analysis of what went wrong that iconic evening, it would be remiss to not take a violation-wise look at Saturday night’s chaotic match:

Serena Williams lost the first set 6–2, to Naomi Osaka. Later, while several spectators turned to the code violation called in the second set to explain why she got upset, it would be ignorant not to establish the fact that so far, things were not looking up for Serena, fouling her spirit.

The second set, which was tied at 1–1, saw Ramos, the umpire, issue Williams a coaching violation, claiming that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had been coaching her from the stands. However, it was controversial because either verbal or signal coaching happens from the stands fairly regularly and isn’t often called.

Image Courtesy: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Williams told Ramos that Mouratoglou had given her a thumbs-up, which is similar to a ‘come on’. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” Williams was heard telling Ramos. A TV replay of Mouratoglou showed him motioning with his two hands as if telling her to move forward. There was no thumbs-up sign. Later, in a post-match interview, he admitted to having coached during the game.

However, it was only a warning. Serena did not lose a point or a game. She found the warning unfair and unnecessary and did make some strong remarks to the umpire in her defense, but ultimately, she kept playing. Several games later, Williams was leading 3–1, when Osaka broke her serve to make it 3–2. Soon after, Serena lost a serve. Along with it, she lost her temper too, slamming her racquet onto the court so hard that it shattered and warped. This lead to a docked point for a second violation.

As the game went on, and Serena kept going back and forth to the umpire’s stand, arguing. She had to take a break between games to sit for a while and try to get her emotions under control. Yet, when she left the bench, she turned to give the umpire another tirade—demanding he apologise to her, saying that he’d never umpire another one of her matches, protesting that she had never cheated, calling him a “thief” for taking a point away from her, which is when she was given a third violation. This resulted in a game penalty, putting Osaka 5–3 ahead. A tearful Williams argued her case with tournament officials but, although she held serve in the next game, Osaka served out the victory 6–2 6–4.

Image Courtesy: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Williams does have a point about men often getting away with more than women. Just one day after her outburst, Novak Djokovic smashed his racquet on the floor in frustration at the US Open Final and yet received no code violation from umpire Alison Hughes. In another chain of events, earlier this year, at the Wimbledon quarter-final between Djokovic and Nishikori, both players threw their racquets to the ground in frustration. However, only Djokovic has issued a warning, apparently owing to the force with which the racquet was flung to the ground. The umpire was Carlos Ramos.

That being said, Ramos’ crime,  if anything, is being pedantic, not sexist. Carlos Ramos is reputed to be a rigid and strict umpire, and his punishments have been passionately disputed by players of either gender. He, a stickler for the rules, felt that Williams did break the rules, three times. Thus, she received three penalties. The calls against Williams—coaching, racquet abuse, and umpire abuse—have also been made by Ramos against prominent male players in the last three years. Sexism in tennis may be alive and well, unfortunately, but her punishment was not an example of it.

Image Courtesy: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Most of the tennis world is split over their outlook on this match. Billie Jean King, the former world No. 1 who founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, said on Tuesday all sides shared blame for the incident, saying Williams was “out of line” but that Ramos could have prevented the controversy with more leniency and clearer communication. Meanwhile, Annabel Croft, former British No. 1, said “Carlos Ramos is not sexist. He’s a very strict, very decisive umpire, who takes nothing from any opponent whether they’re male or female. I’ve seen him giving time violations to Rafael Nadal out there on the court many, many times, but he’s someone who just plays it by the rule-book.”

Finally, caught in this feud between Williams and Ramos, cast aside by the world of tennis, was the real victor of the night—Naomi Osaka. Almost all of Osaka’s matches, including the final, were straight-set, open-and-shut, surgically efficient wins. Only once did any of her opponents win more than four games in a set. The crushing power and ambition of her playing style have long been a marvel to watch, and now she owns the major hardware—Japan’s first Grand Slam title—to back it up.

Image Courtesy: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who has been following Osaka’s playing style over the past few years can affirm that her performance recently wasn’t an unbelievable upward spike, but instead a logical, steady continuation of her career graph so far. Yet, after beating her childhood idol in what should have been a career-defining match, she was forced to lower her visor in shame as the crowd booed her, and apologise repeatedly with tears brimming in her eyes.

Perhaps it is time that we give some thought to how a twenty-year-old from Japan handled being humiliated on stage with humility, candor, and moral high ground. Moreover, she maintained her calm while her opponent, a 23 time Grand Slam winner continued to have a breakdown that lasted the entirety of the match, crying foul at every turn. With this attitude, Osaka possesses the quality of character to make Williams’ meltdown a mere footnote in a potentially iconic career.

Featured Image Courtesy: Associated Press