CANBERRA – Serena Williams, a deserved legend in her own lifetime, owes a public apology to Naomi Osaka, match umpire Carlos Ramos and the world’s tennis fans. She was the perpetrator, not the victim, of unprovoked abuse. Women should be among the first to recognize and condemn blame-shifting from the perpetrator to the victim. Attempts to confuse her on-court behavior with historical injustices to women and the “everyone else does it” fallacy are an aggravating, not an extenuating, circumstance. Far from advancing, her apologists damage the cause of women’s rights and racial equality.
Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open title. Williams lost the match and failed the character test. The crowning achievement of Osaka’s young life, an occasion to savor and treasure, soak in the crowd’s adulation and bask in glory, was ruined by an ugly outburst of petulance by Williams. For the crowd to boo Osaka, reducing her to tears during the presentation ceremony, was disgraceful.
In the second set, having lost the first, Williams was given hand signals by her coach against the rules. Whether she saw them or not is irrelevant. Ramos did and issued a verbal caution. She protested forcefully, but he was unmoved. Then, having been broken, Williams smashed her racquet and earned an automatic second code violation and point penalty. (Memo to tennis authorities: Change the rule so players smashing racquets must complete the match with those racquets.)
At a critical inflection point in the match, Williams escalated the situation. She attempted to erode the umpire’s authority by publicly browbeating and humiliating him. When she called him a thief, he took note and the third code violation earned her an automatic game penalty.
Williams has a history of on-court temper tantrums. In the 2009 semifinal against Kim Clijsters, also when losing, Williams exploded at the Japanese lineswoman, Shino Tsurubuchi, for a foot-fault call and, waving her racquet, yelled: “I swear to God, I’m f——- going to take this f——- ball and shove it down your f——- throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” And then she denied she had threatened to kill the line judge. In the 2011 final against Samantha Stosur, she railed against an umpire’s call: “You’re ugly on the inside. … You’re a hater and unattractive inside.” (Memo to Billie Jean King: If you don’t like women being called hysterical, tell global role models to stop acting hysterically.)
At the news conference Williams referenced the code violation for Alize Cornet for changing her shirt on court as an example of double standards. It was, and the official’s decision has been widely censured. No sport is free of officials behaving officiously. In the 2012 Olympics, Usain Bolt ran the anchor leg to sprint Jamaica to the gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay. He tried to keep his baton as a souvenir, but an official on the ground forced him to surrender it. The 80,000-strong crowd booed the official. After the race, organizers saw the light and allowed the Jamaica team to keep the baton.
A second complaint is inconsistent rule application. As we saw during the FIFA World Cup, different referees use discretion differently for the same offense, for example a goalkeeper moving before a penalty kick. If Ramos is consistent in how he applies the coaching instructions rule, he cannot be faulted because other umpires don’t.
Ramos handled an ugly situation well. He acted dispassionately, without emotion and applied the relevant rules objectively. He retained his professional calm against Williams’ hysterical and unrelenting tirade. He, too, has a history. His past disciplinary calls include: at the 2016 French Open, a caution to Venus Williams about coaching from her box and a code violation to Nick Kyrgios for yelling at a ball boy; a code violation to Andy Murray at the 2016 Olympics for yelling “stupid umpiring”; a caution to Rafael Nadal at the 2017 French Open for time violation; and a code violation to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Wimbledon for racquet abuse.
Thus the three calls against Williams — coaching, racquet abuse and umpire abuse — have also been made by Ramos against prominent male players in the last three years. Australian umpire Richard Ings recounts how in a match at the 1987 U.S. Open he issued a warning, point penalty and game penalty (for hurling obscenities at the umpire) against John McEnroe that cost him the second set. Of Williams’ cumulative troubles, the first was a caution, not a penalty. The second, for smashing her racquet, was an automatic code violation that triggered the nondiscretionary point penalty.
She then collapsed into the mother of all meltdowns, self-destructed under a persecuted victim complex and triggered the third violation that drew the game penalty. She was the sole author of this but refuses to accept responsibility for the consequences. Gender and motherhood were entirely extraneous to her situation. Had her opponent been Caucasian, she might well have added race to the incendiary mix. Had Novak Djokovic abused and threatened the female umpire in Sunday’s men’s final like Williams, he would have justly attracted howls of outrage and condemnation.
Williams was facing defeat, could not stomach it and launched an unprovoked verbal assault on the umpire. In sharp contrast, Osaka maintained her composure throughout the (deliberate?) distraction — further testimony to her strength of character. Williams’ threat to bar Ramos from officiating at any future match was a display of bullying in all its naked ugliness by an entitled diva. (Memo to the world’s tennis umpires: Refuse to officiate Williams’ matches until she has issued an unqualified apology to Ramos.)
Third, the worldwide TV audience was appalled by the ugly verbal brawl. We should have been joyously celebrating the birth of an exciting new tennis star. Instead we watched live the hand signals from the coach, the smashed racquet and the umpire abuse. A sore loser, Williams took refuge in the victimhood of social injustice to self-praise her behavior as a fight for women’s rights. That shows total contempt for our intelligence. Maybe, being part-Asian, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios should claim the aggrieved racial victim mantle. (Memo to tennis stars with egos too big to fit on the court: Your rich earnings come from us. Do not disrespect and insult us.)
Absent an apology, I shall not watch another match involving Williams. Does this make me anti-woman, anti-black and anti-American? A couple of years ago, outraged by the serial on-court misbehavior of Kyrgios, I made the same resolve and refuse to watch when he is playing.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Australian National University.