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Just days after it happened, the U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka has already solidified its place as one of the most notable controversies in sports.
Williams was fined $17,000 – and lost the match – after chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued her three code violations in Saturday’s match. First, Ramos issueds Williams a warning, citing her for receiving coaching via hand signals. Williams, upset by the call, demanded an apology and later smashed her racket on the court, resulting in another violation that lost her a point. Williams responded by calling Ramos a “thief,” and the umpire docked her a game for verbal abuse.
Osaka went on to win the second set and thus the match. But the story didn’t end there.
The match ignited a great debate: Was Williams right, or was the umpire? Some applauded Williams’ post-game statement that the umpire’s actions were sexist; others dismissed the sexism claims, or agreed with Williams’ sentiment but not her approach. According to The Times of London, other umpires are reportedly discussing boycotting Serena Williams’ future matches.
To twin sisters Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando – Know Your Value contributors and U.S. Women’s Hockey Olympic gold medalists – the incident is indicative of larger gender disparities in sports.
“You can argue that [Williams] should or should not have better kept her composure, but that isn’t the real issue at hand – it’s whether a man would have received the same treatment,” Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson told Know Your Value. “There’s a perception that women need to behave. Yet in, say, baseball, you see guys quite literally screaming in an umpire’s face – it takes a lot for them to get ejected. If you saw that from any woman athlete in any sport it would be considered unacceptable.”
In support of Williams
Billie Jean King, the famed former No. 1 tennis pro who won the “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs in 1973, tweeted similar sentiments the night of the match and penned an Op-Ed in the Washington Post the following day.
On social media, users circulated videos of men tennis pros and other athletes erupting in anger at referees yet receiving little or no punishment. For example: ESPN host Jay Williams posted a video of Roger Federer berating an umpire during the 2009 U.S. Open men’s final. “Do you have any rules in there?” Federer said. “Don’t tell me to be quiet, OK? When I want to talk, I’ll talk, all right?” Federer was fined $1,500.
Former tennis pro James Blake tweeted that he had gone unpunished for saying “worse” things to an official.
"You also want to give credit where credit is due,” said Lamoureux-Davidson. “During her post-match interview, Serena said many times that Naomi did a great job, and she really did. Yet the conversation hasn't been about Naomi's win at all, which is unfortunate."
Williams ‘got part of it wrong’
One of the most famous woman tennis legends, however, disagrees with Williams. Martina Navratilova wrote in The New York Times that a gendered double standard does exist, but she insisted Williams “also got part of it wrong. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’ Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”
Other media outlets published similar opinion pieces: USA Today’s headline states Williams “diminished herself,” while The Guardian’s Sportblog said Williams “was right about women’s treatment but wrong on Saturday.” The post added: “By conflating her own dilemma with a wider issue and claiming to champion the cause of women in sport … she shifted the blame for her own misdemeanours, and their consequences, on to an official who was powerless to reply.”
For its part, the International Tennis Federation formally backed Ramos on Monday, saying he acted with "professionalism and integrity.” Ramos did speak briefly to the Portuguese newspaper Tribuna Expresso on Tuesday. “I’m fine, given the circumstances,” he told the publication. “It is a delicate situation, but umpiring ‘a la carte’ does not exist. Don’t worry about me.”
‘A conversation that wouldn’t otherwise be happening’
It’s a nuanced debate that has now garnered mainstream attention, but both of the Lamoreaux twins pointed out this fight is not new for Williams: “When you look at Serena and [sister] Venus’s careers over the decades, it’s easy to forget all they’ve had to go through as not only female but also African-American female athletes,” Monique Lamoureux-Morando told Know Your Value. “Serena in particular has had to face situations like this before over and over again, and as an athlete that is frustrating. She hasn’t always been the most liked athlete, yet she’s still willing to create a lot of conversation that wouldn’t otherwise be happening.”
Lamoureux-Davidson agreed: “From a tennis standpoint, I hope this creates more respect for female players. [Williams] pointed to so many double standards in her post-match interview and I really hope it gets the attention it deserves.” Williams specifically called out an August code violation levied on France’s Alizé Cornet, who jogged to the sidelines at her U.S. Open match and briefly removed her shirt to fix it after she realized she had put it on backward. Backlash ensued – men, including Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, have taken off their shirts while sitting next to the court – and tournament officials later apologized, saying Cornet had broken no rules.
“What it comes down to is that people don’t even realize they expect women athletes to act or look a certain way,” Lamoureux-Morando said. “Even off the rink, it’s so clear in the comments we get from people when our team is traveling together and we’re recognized. ‘You guys are much smaller than we thought you’d be.’ ‘Wow, you actually have all your teeth.’ You laugh it off at first, and then you think: Wait, that’s definitely not what they would say to a man. It’s all these individual things that add up.”
For Williams, it’s all added up to far too much – and she plans to fight for herself and others.
In a press conference after the match, Williams stood by her statements to the umpire and added: “I’m going to continue to fight for women … The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person who has emotions … They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”