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The Natural Enemy: Serena Williams and the Sporting Umpire

Should it matter this much?  A wealthy, successful individual expressed fury at the most popular object of vitriol in any sport. The umpire or referee is only ever neutral in the eyes of a falsely contrived standard: that someone must be objective, neutral and mindful of enforcing the rules of the game.  In the eyes of the player, the figure who judges and assesses the course of a match can become an enemy, a monster of burden. In the US Open Women’s Tennis Final, that beast was umpire Carlos Ramos.

It all began with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who seemed to be signalling to Williams during the match, thereby committing a violation in attempting to steer the game. Williams lost one point as a result. Calls of “liar” and “thief” followed, resulting in another violation. Matters escalated, and Williams was held to have committed another code violation in demolishing her racquet.  Her call of fury: “Sexism!”

Williams was truculent, justifiably at first instance for not necessarily noticing her coach and being punished as a result. But a person who has won 23 times at the highest level is bound to feel slighted by certain decisions, notably those that throw her off her stroke. The blood and mind has adjusted to glory.  It did not take time for the machine of social media and commentary to boil down the details and decide that a strict reading of the rules by Ramos entitled him to be pilloried. He was all establishment, all power, and poor discretion.  A woman, accused former world number one Billy Jean King, is deemed hysterical if she disagrees with an umpire’s ruling; a man, she suggested, is considered outspoken and forthright, the bad boy to be celebrated.

King went so far as to see the entire spectacle in terms of archaic laws and an “abuse of power”, a small step towards throwing the entire rule book out, along with its musty ridden representatives. She fantasised about the injustice of the whole thing, and proceeded to strain the scene of every single implication of identity: “The ceiling that women of colour face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did on at the women’s US Open final on Saturday.”

Commentators focused on the denial of Williams’ entitlement for a suitable comeback “just one year after having a baby and fighting for her own life after childbirth.” Destiny had been confounded.  Shaded into obscurity was Williams’ victorious Japanese opponent Naomi Osaka, herself of colour and her country’s first Grand Slam title winner, and of a state not exactly renowned for splashing out on hand clapping ceremonies of racial tolerance and cuddly harmoniousness.

As is rarely the case in such suppositions, a closer examination of the Ramos record to men and women would have been instructive, including those superstars who feel they are above reproach from the person in the chair.  Many less robust umpires prefer to let the hotheads be; we live in an age of extreme trigger warning laced sensitivity.

Ramos, for his part as a firm, if pedantic umpire, has stared down players of all sorts, merits and vintages.  The men should know. Novak Djokovic received a fault for time violations during the 2017 French Open; the inevitable loud retort landed him a code violation.  Andy Murray received a rap over the knuckles for uttering “stupid umpiring” during the 2016 Olympics. Ditto the perennially volatile infant-in-a-man’s body Nick Krygios, whose abuse of a towel boy earned him a violation that same year.

The issue of gender never featured during this particular final, bar an anguished cry from Williams suggesting it might have.  For Ramos to have not issued code violations could just as well have led to arguments of sexism in reverse.  Attempts to read it otherwise return to the traditional hostility (archaic or otherwise) shown towards a figure touted as neutral when he is deemed sporting kind’s appointed enemy.  This was a more traditional spat between sports performer and the ruling figure, one imposed upon the players by authority and regulation. Williams bucked it and was duly punished. Her opponent could only watch and feel embarrassed.

Mouratoglou, who has bleached himself of blame, added further grist to that troubled mill in the match’s aftermath, suggesting that all coaches breached the code during matches.  He, however, had not been caught doing it – at least till now. “All coaches are coaching throughout the match. But check the record. I’ve never been called for a coaching violation in my career.” It’s not a violation if you’re not caught.

He also found time to dash off other locker-room opinions, showing an urgent need to sing for his supper: “The star of the show has been once again the chair umpire. Second time in this US Open and the third time for Serena in a US Open Final. Should they be allowed to have an influence on the result of a match?  When do we decide that this should never happen again?” The umpire will always have an influence on the outcome of a match because decisions change the course of proceedings.  Perhaps a ceremonial and deterrent lynching might be in order? (King makes a more modest recommendation: permit coaches latitude to be involved during the match.)

Gender codes and socially stretched theories have a habit of denying the individual free will.  Forget it, banish it; the spectator, commentator and agonisingly opinionated will foist one upon you.  Agency is banished, subordinated to a superstructure. Williams is not treated as a grand slam champion and athletic phenomenon (her track record heavenly screams it), but a creature crushed by the “male” perception that looms large or some other impediment that does wonders to distract from her brattish appeal. (During the 2009 US Open, the brat was in full flight when Williams threatened to deposit a tennis ball down an unfortunate lineswoman’s throat.)

This was a battle of wills, and Williams lost it.  We return to the old story: the umpire did it, and thank the confused deities above he did.  He has always been responsible for the Great Flood, syphilis and famine. He might be cruel to children, perhaps even eat them.  He will always be and coming out in defence of the umpire in any sport is much like siding with Colonel William Bligh against the mutineers.  We all need our anointed alibis to justify defeat and loss.


24 comments

  1. Roger Hawcroft

    Yes. There was no sexism in the decisions of the umpire of that final. It has become not uncommon for the ‘sexism’ card to be used by some women whenever it suits them. That does a disservice not only to men but to their fellow women.

    Williams was not standing up for women with her dummy spit. She was being beaten and couldn’t take it. Yes, she’s been a champion and a consistent one but she needs to realise that there is no ‘Superwoman’, just as there is no ‘Superman’ – they are creatures of fiction.

    She has had here day and is fortunate to have had the talent to have had lots of days of glory. Bowing out gracefully would be a far better way to go than throwing tantrums. By acting as she did, she belittled her opponents achievement, the US Open, the sport of tennis, and herself.

    I wonder whether, when she thinks through all this from a little distance, she will realise that her behaviour was also an appalling example for her child.

    Yes, she has been and probably is still a great tennis player but a little humility wouldn’t hurt. We all get over our best, in time. Accepting it gracefully is a positive way to finish. It is important for all of us, regardless of our achievements, to remember that we are mortal.

  2. Nero of The Ancient Order of Self Immolation

    Who would believe such acts of sportswomanship has generated the airplay that it has, or that the worthy victor in a contest between such contemporaneous David and Goliath – oh isnt that sexist? – continues to be so blithely ignored. Much like Agent Orange, the unworthy loser has sucked up all the lime as well as the light, leaving only bitter arrogance rudely on display.

    Why is no-one standing and singing praise for the courage and the dignity and humility of the real winner in this overlooking instance? What a game she played – she who faced The Master – or should that be The Mistress – with determined skill and guile and showed us all that fairy tales can still happen sometimes … If only we acknowledge and witness them for what they are when we see them.

    We truly live in an age of unabashed naked Emporers. How long must we proclaim Long Live The King? Only now it should be said “Long Live The Queen”.

  3. Shaun Newman

    Williams acted like a spoilt child, can anyone imagine an Australian batsman disputing a decision from an umpire like Williams did? She shouldn’t have even been playing tennis, she should have been with her daughter. She is a millionaire many times over and does not need the money. Unfortunately much like many Aussies after decades of brainwashing from yank advertising from the big multinational corporations that operate in Australia 30% of whom don’t pay a cent in income tax, Williams seems to think she can say and do anything.

    Wealthy people seem to have an entitlement complex and a superiority complex which is totally unjustified they don’t seem to understand that they are merely human beings like the next person in the street. The yank arrogance can be seen in the wealthy like trupt and Williams, and in my humble opinion it is “ugly.”

  4. Matters Not

    There’s more to this argument than most people appreciate:

    Perhaps the most convincing argument in Williams’s favor is that historically, Ramos has had several heated disagreements with male tennis players — with different results. As the Guardian pointed out, Ramos has gotten into arguments with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal and didn’t penalize them the way he did Serena.

    For example, at Wimbledon earlier this year, Ramos issued a verbal warning to Djokovic for unsportsmanlike conduct, and it resulted in Djokovic complaining, like Williams did. But the warning was all he received:

    Ramos didn’t antagonize the situation with Djokovic. In that instance, he let Djokovic release his steam and anger — the soft warning that Blake refers to in the tweet embedded above. But in Williams’s case, the penalties that Ramos issued didn’t reflect the tolerance he has shown in the past for male players.

    It’s a long article but a nuanced one. (A type of ‘wicked’ problem). Well worth a read.

    https://www.vox.com/2018/9/10/17837598/serena-williams-us-open-umpire-carlos-ramos

  5. helvityni

    …and what about Miss Osaka’s day in the sun; where was Serena’s kindness, her support for a fellow female player….?

  6. Geoff Andrews

    Yes. What’s the world coming to when a girl (who has just had a baby, remember) can’t slander some puffed up sexist authoritarian in front of 50 million viewers without receiving a penalty of a game or even a point?

  7. Athena

    Ramos has gotten into arguments with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal and didn’t penalise them the way he did Serena. At most, the argument has cost the men a point. Usually they received just a warning. And Nadal’s coach admits to regularly coaching during the match. The practice is widespread. Either police the rules as the same for everyone, or not at all. If Ramos can’t treat all players equally, he has no business umpiring.

    This is not the first time Serena has experienced discrimination. She is drug tested far more than the other players, but has not tested positive. Her catsuit was not allowed, but Anne White’s catsuit was ok. She gets abused by tennis fans for her appearance and has been called the n word. When it comes to tantrums, there’s more discrimination. The antics of the bad boys of tennis are loved by many tennis fans. Women aren’t supposed to get angry.

  8. Barlee

    I watched the match and on court Serena showed some good play mixed with some cringe-worthy and ultimately useless emotional outbursts. Admittedly it is funny to watch players blow up on the tennis court, but, if one of the purposes of playing sport is to exercise and enhance ones sense of being fair under duress then it is better for young players to point out what is of value. Spitting the dummy and displaying the inability to ‘let it go’ have only a negative value. I think everyone, with exception perhaps of the LNP cabinet, understands that. Martina Navratilovas’ commentary is the best I have read yet:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/10/opinion/martina-navratilova-serena-williams-us-open.html

  9. Christopher J. Ward

    Tennis is no longer a game but a spectacle. I’d like to have heard Rod Laver’s voice or the late Harry Hopman. The cartoon was satire, nothing more and the fact that it inspired, of itself, racist remarks is a reflection on the US, NYC and idiots everywhere. I felt very sorry for Naomi Osaka, who played brilliantly and was humble in victory.

  10. paul walter

    As Matters Not says, it is nuanced. Games personship has been going on in professional tennis since Jimmy Connors. It is always untidy, but won’t stop because big money, sponsorship etc are involved.

    The agony I see is the one always sees when an illustrious career is drawing to a close and the individual involved has just realized it and tried to cling on to their top place in the pecking order unsuccessfully.

  11. helvityni

    …the same cartoonist has done many ‘ugly’ cartoons depicting players of varied ethic backgrounds; he must be racist because he has made Kyrgios look unattractive because he is of Greek and Malaysian background…Give me a break….

  12. paul walter

    Marvellous comment.

  13. Diannaart

    Helvityni

    FYI, I don’t believe the cartoonist was being deliberately racist, he was lazy in his generic depiction of Serena, nor did he think things through.

    Here in Australia we do not have the “Jim Crow” history of slavery of blacks in the USA (we have our own system of disparagement of those who are not white).

    Look, if you can, through the eyes of Serena, what would she see? What would anyone from the “land of the free” see?

    As your good friend, Paul Walter, said, “It is nuanced”.

  14. helvityni

    Serena, Kyrgious and many other top players have behaved badly….

    The cartoonist has not been racist.

    I felt sorry for young Naomi…

    That’s all what I have been saying.

  15. Deanna Jones

    Well stone the crows, another article based in conservative sentiment. All day I’ve been listening to white peeps denying racism and male peeps denying sexism.

  16. Diannaart

    Helvityni

    Perhaps we are speaking at cross purposes. I will try to clarify.

    Tantrums by anyone over the age of about 3 are not acceptable.

    Serena did spoil Naomi Osaka’s day in the sun.

    My point was the cartoon by Knight was not as carefully considered as it could be. It was lazy and thoughtless.

    I asked you to try and see this cartoon through the eyes of USA blacks. I gave an example of stereotypes of blacks and the vilification throughout American history and how Knight’s cartoon looked like more of the same. I did not see much resemblance to Serena, all I saw was a generic black woman throwing a tantrum.

    Just a thought, you know, asking you to try to see how something might appear to someone with a very different background to yours.

  17. Slapsy

    Maybe,after that last comment,it is time for a quick poll. Who,after first sight of that cartoon,did not recognise Serena Williams.
    I believe her tantrum was designed to achieve a number of things. Her confrontations with the umpire were made to intimidate him,using her colour,gender and status in the game. Good on him that he stood his ground,under that continual onslaught. She also used it as a means to gain even more support from an obviously supportive crowd. Considering the crowd reaction at the presentation ceremony,she was certainly successful with that one.
    She may not have seen the attempted coaching,but she certainly forgot the most basic lesson from her formative years,”The umpire is always right”. Maybe she wasn’t taught that one.

  18. Lord John

    Dear Diannart Just what are you fighting for? Are you trying to educate us?

  19. Kaye Lee

    Serena’s behaviour was unacceptable regardless of who did it. Intimidation and bad temper should not be excused.

    As for the cartoon, I found it no more offensive than any of those sort of cartoons, all of which make me uncomfortable as they always exaggerate physical appearance and never in a flattering way. That being said, I understand the point diannaart is making in that, in another context and considering history, it could be hurtfully reminiscent of stereotypes from a tragic past. It doesn’t hurt us to consider that.

  20. Kaye Lee

    The line being pushed is “women are allowed to get mad too”.

    I find that absolutely ridiculous. Perhaps men have been treated differently – if they weren’t it would be about the only place – but are we seriously going to fight for the right to behave badly? Of course we all get angry but that doesn’t mean we have to get abusive and start breaking things. The measure of a person is how they deal with adversity and if you can’t take a bad call, then don’t play sport.

  21. Diannaart

    Thank you for at least understanding my point of view, Kaye Lee.

    Maybe, living for a while in the USA, has given me a different perspective.

  22. Diannaart

    Gary Younge from the Guardian has summarised eloquently the interpretation many people have made of Knight’s cartoon.

    The problem is not that the cartoon’s critics don’t understand the distinction between racism and satire; it’s that Knight and his editors have yet to grasp the distinction between satire and cliche. When you uncritically, and ostensibly unwittingly, recycle a centuries-old image that both demeans and degrades, you do not practise satire – you peddle cliche. As such, the cartoon fails on its own terms and the ultimate tantrum is theirs. For having vocally exercised their right to be offensive, they now take umbrage at the inevitable and predictable outcome: the right of others to be offended.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/13/serena-williams-cartoon-racism-censorship-mark-knight-herald-sun

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