Serena Williams’s US Open fight with umpire Carlos Ramos, explained ….
Male tennis players have been celebrated for snapping at umpires. Serena Williams was punished for it.
The 2018 US Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
The match was guaranteed to make history no matter what. Williams was gunning for her 24th Grand Slam tournament win, a number that would have tied the all-time record for the most Grand Slam singles tournament wins in history. And Osaka was hoping to be the first Japanese player in history to win a Grand Slam.
In the end, Osaka defeated Williams 6-2, 6-4, ensuring the latter — but her achievement was overshadowed by what happened in the match.
During a pivotal pocket of the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos charged Williams with three code violations, abruptly shifting the momentum of the match. The first violation saw Ramos warn Williams for receiving coaching in a moment that set off a ripple effect: Williams contested the warning and continued playing, but before the match was over, she had busted her racket, called the umpire a thief, and received two scoring penalties.
In the blink of an eye, the score went from Williams being down 4-3 to her being down 5-3 and serving to stay in the championship. Things progressed so quickly that Osaka didn’t seem to realize what was happening on the other side of the court.
When the dust settled, Williams was denied her chance to mount a comeback at the US Open just one year after having a baby and fighting for her own life after childbirth. Meanwhile, Osaka was denied a chance to defeat Williams on her own terms.
People all over the world are still replaying what happened, like trying to unravel a knot. Was Williams treated unfairly? Was her outburst out of line? Was she treated like her male counterparts would have been if they’d behaved exactly like she did? According to her critics, Williams behaved badly and her fate was self-inflicted; according to her fans, she was unfairly targeted by a sexist, egotistical man.
In a game rooted in simplicity — where every ball is either in or out, and points are either won or lost — Saturday night’s tennis match was anything but. The 2018 US Open women’s final will absolutely go down in history, but not because of how Williams and Osaka played. Instead, it will be remembered for the conversation it spurred about Williams’s hard-fought legacy in tennis, and sexism and double standards in the sport.
What actually happened between Serena Williams and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos
Tennis is a strange sport that can be difficult to follow, due to its scoring structure and the way points are called. But its code of conduct and the violations and penalties that were imposed on Williams at the US Open are distinct and clear.
In the US, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) maintains the same rules for all players, from juniors all the way up to adult tennis players, about how they’re expected to conduct themselves on the court. These rules cover a range of situations, from instructing players to give their opponent the benefit of the doubt on difficult calls (at the junior level, players call their own lines and whether balls are in or out) to how to handle lateness or a game delay.
Rules governing acceptable on-court behavior are taught at all levels, starting at an early age.
And at the Grand Slam level, the International Tennis Federation implements a code of conduct and point penalty system that governs how violations of unsportsmanlike conduct are doled out:
The Point Penalty Schedule to be used for violations set forth above is as follows:
First offence: Warning
Second offence: Point penalty
Third and each subsequent offence: Game penalty
Per Ramos’s calls during the championship match, Williams committed two offenses that cost her a point and a game — racket abuse and abuse of an official/umpire — both of which came after he issued her a verbal warning for coaching.
And the warning for coaching came because coaching is forbidden by the ITF Grand Slam rulebook. The rulebook states that “communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching,” and that coaching violations follow the point penalty system.
With that said, while the ITF strictly prohibits “coaching,” anyone who watches professional tennis will see players looking up at their coaching boxes (where their coach sits) and coaches looking back and saying something to their players. The rule is rarely enforced, and players rarely receive code violations for it.
That’s why it was so surprising when Ramos warned Williams for coaching during the championship match. In the second game of the second set, with Williams behind, Ramos spotted what he believed was Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, giving hand signals to Williams, and issued Williams a warning.
“I have never cheated in my life,” Williams said, taking offense to the warning and contesting it, telling Ramos that she’d rather lose than cheat. “You owe me an apology.”
Mouratoglou himself said later during an interview with ESPN that he was giving hand signals to Serena — as many other professional tennis coaches have been known to do, despite the coaching rule — but that she didn’t see him.
“Well, I mean, I’m honest, I was coaching,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think she looked at me, so that’s why she didn’t even think I was.”
Williams didn’t receive any scoring penalties for her coaching code violation. But it’s important to recognize the warning she received for it as the catalyst that set the rest of the contentious events of the match in motion.
After the verbal warning for coaching, Williams was actually ahead in the second set, at three games to one. But then she played a poor game and lost, narrowing her lead over Osaka to 3-2. She smashed her racket on the ground, and Ramos issued his first official penalty against her, by docking her a point in the next game.
“You stole a point from me,” Williams told Ramos forcefully, though she did not yell. She also called him a thief (as seen in the highlights video above).
Irate over the smashed racket violation, Williams explained to Ramos that she shouldn’t have been warned for coaching and that the racquet abuse should have been the verbal warning — not the point penalty.
Then, after play resumed, Williams lost the next two games, putting Osaka at four games to Williams’s three. Then Williams once again confronted Ramos for the point penalty.
“You are a liar. You will never be on a court of mine as long as you live. When are you going to give me my apology? Say you are sorry,” she said.
This is when Ramos issued his second official penalty against Williams, for abusing an umpire or official. He awarded a game to Osaka, and the score became 5-3, with Williams serving to stay in the match. Williams ultimately lost the next game — and thus the set — and Osaka won the match.
Altogether, Williams committed three violations, for which she would ultimately be fined $17,000. After the match, she was officially penalized for a coaching warning ($4,000), racket abuse ($3,000), and verbal abuse ($10,000). However, one might argue that the fines pale in comparison to her in-game penalties of losing a point and then a game — major punishments in any professional match, let alone a Grand Slam final. And that’s where things get especially tricky. Because no one is suggesting that Williams didn’t violate ITF rules. Rather, it’s how the penalties were issued and whether Ramos issued them fairly that is spurring controversy and debate.
Serena Williams’s flare-up with the chair umpire shows how inconsistent, and perhaps sexist, tennis officiating can be
Both during the match and after her loss, Williams argued that the penalties issued against her were the result of Ramos having a sexist attitude toward her.
“To lose a game for saying [that Ramos is a thief] is not fair,” Williams said during the match. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen.”
After the match, Williams further explained that she felt she was held to a different standard than male tennis players who’ve done similar things or worse.
“I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief because I thought he took a game from me, but 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,” Williams said. “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 took a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’”
Williams is referring to is how male tennis players frequently aren’t punished and are sometimes even celebrated for defending themselves against what they perceive to be bad calls. This goes back to the 1970s and ’80s, to the heyday of players like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — two cornerstones of American tennis who were well-known and beloved for their hot tempers and tendency to buck tennis authority.
McEnroe in particular is now making a living providing tennis commentary on live broadcasts, where he’s been praised for calling out bad calls from officials.
“And so that’s sort of a weird dynamic, to put it mildly — that I’m actually getting paid extra but for things I used to get fined for,” he told the New York Times in 2015.
But you don’t need to look back very far into tennis history to find an example of the double standard that Williams was talking about during the post-championship press conference. Earlier in the Open, those who watched John Isner’s second round match against Nicolas Jarry witnessed Isner have a complete meltdown and look at his coach after losing a game in the third set. At the end of his tantrum, Isner completely destroyed his racket. He was only assessed a verbal warning for this code violation, and it was considered his first offense.
In the days following Williams and Osaka’s championship match, tennis groups and former players voiced support for Williams, saying her conduct was not treated the same as that of other players, specifically her male counterparts.
“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women,” said Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, in a statement on Sunday. “We do not believe that this was done [during the championship match].”
The USTA also showed Williams its support.
“There’s no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires and what the women are doing, and I think there has to be some consistency across the board,” USTA chief Katrina Adams said in a statement. “I’m all about gender equality and I think when you look at that situation these are conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks. We have to treat each other fairly and the same.”
A few retired male tennis players have also weighed in on Williams’s penalization, saying that they have said worse things to umpires and not gotten docked points. James Blake, a former professional American tennis player who was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, explained on Twitter that he was treated very differently than Serena: