How We See Serena Williams

She is a champion, a goddess, and a flawed human being. Our conversations about her should reflect her complexity.

Serena Williams looking frustrated.
Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open final. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images, Julian Finney/Getty Images, and Al Bello/Getty Images.

On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Josh Levin spoke with the Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk and the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas about the confrontation between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 U.S. Open final. A transcript of that discussion is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited. You can listen to the full conversation by clicking on the player below.

Josh Levin: Louisa, the thing that incited this was Serena Williams perceiving that the first warning Ramos issued her, about illegal coaching, was an accusation of cheating. In tennis, the notion that players are getting coached from the stands is something that’s very common, and so I’m curious for your thoughts about how Serena took it.

Louisa Thomas: Novak Djokovic has been called for coaching violations. Rafael Nadal has been called, I think more than once, for coaching violations. It’s not a gendered thing in any way. But I think that Serena Williams has had to spend so much time in her career listening to people attack her character and question her integrity, and cast aspersions on her and say, You don’t have the right to claim your own success. There’s something wrong with this picture, and we need to blame you for something. I can’t speak to what’s exactly in her mind, but I could imagine that the suggestion that she didn’t deserve what she was getting—that she was being helped by someone else—was a suggestion that she took personally in a way that someone like Djokovic would not. I understand why she may have heard it differently than another player might have because I heard it differently.

There was nothing, according to the rule book, that Carlos Ramos did wrong. It is true that many umpires say, “Hey, your coach is sending you signals, you’ve got to tell him to knock it off.” I think that would have diffused it immediately.

Vann Newkirk: Where it really gets out of control for me is with the game penalty. With verbal abuse, that’s something where every umpire has full discretion to say how far it goes and what it means. You can say, “You keep talking to me like that and I will give you a penalty,” and umpires do it all the time, they have a back-and-forth. Serena used no profanity, which is wild to me because male players often use profanity. You see some male players curse at the umpire in multiple languages.

Levin: There are obviously judgment calls in any sport, but the referee is supposed to be a neutral arbiter applying a rule book, and in this case what he was judging is, Is she hurting my feelings? Or, if not that, it’s something like, Has she gone over some line that is entirely up to me and is based on my sense of whether this woman is out of control?

Thomas: It does say in the rule book that it’s a penalty if you question an umpire’s integrity by suggesting that they’re dishonest, and I think that’s what he took from the word thief. The irony is that she was in some ways attacking his integrity and he slapped her with a penalty that basically put the match out of reach, whereas she felt like he was attacking her integrity and she had no recourse. There’s a power imbalance there. It is built into the system, obviously, that one person is the arbiter of the rule book and the other person is supposed to follow the rules and accept them.

Levin: John McEnroe has come up so much in the last couple days, with people talking about how his outbursts were worse and more profane and he was still celebrated. I think that’s being romanticized a bit—at the time, people called him a brat. But anyway, a couple of years ago, Christopher Clarey wrote a piece in the New York Times looking back at when McEnroe got defaulted in the Australian Open in 1990. What McEnroe told Clarey was that he got kicked out of that match because he was on the downside of his career. He felt like when he was at the top of the sport, he did things that were so much worse and always got a pass for it.

Serena is now at the top of her game. She’s at the top of her sport, she is an idol, she is singular. And she was treated like John McEnroe was treated in the 1990 Australian Open when he was on the downside of his career. I don’t know if you want to say that she deserves special treatment because of her stature in the sport, but it’s fair to say that usually a player of her stature would get the benefit of the doubt.

Newkirk: Yeah, superstar calls, right? I think that’s how it should probably work. The refs don’t give an advantage to the superstar players, I don’t think, but they have a different level of engagement with them. You’re not gonna kick LeBron out of a finals game if he doesn’t curse at you, right?

The biggest parallel, the thing that’s been on my mind the most, was after Nick Kyrgios basically got coached by the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, in the middle of the match. Kyrgios’ next opponent, Roger Federer, was asked what he thought about what happened. And Federer, very calmly, excoriates the umpire—excoriates him. And at the end, he says, “This won’t happen again.” This is a player throwing his weight around. And that’s what a male superstar expects to have: that type of relationship, where they know they are more important to the game, to the match, than the umpire. And that dynamic has never really materialized or existed with Serena and the umpires.

Thomas: It’s unbelievable that all this happened in a Grand Slam final. If this had happened even to Serena in a first-round match, it would be a huge hubbub, but it wouldn’t be the talk of the nation in quite the same way. I think it’s pretty well-known that referees in other sports swallow their whistles.

Levin: We could at least be grateful that he didn’t blow a whistle. That would have escalated things even more.

Thomas: That’s actually related to something that not a lot of people are talking about, though, which is the role of the crowd in all of this. Because I really do feel like part of what ramped Serena up was the incredibly ugly sound of these boos. It was creating this tension-filled atmosphere, where she was getting more and more agitated and the crowd was becoming more and more agitated, and I think that they did have a role in this. What the crowd did in the trophy ceremony, to Naomi Osaka—I thought it was appalling. I understood that they were unhappy and that something wrong had happened in their eyes, and in many eyes, and in the eyes of Serena, but a first-time Grand Slam winner is supposed to have this fairy-tale moment where they get to experience this adulation of the crowd, and Osaka didn’t have that. Instead, this incredibly ugly sound was in her ears, and it obviously affected her. She was in tears, and that, as much as anything, was the travesty of this whole situation. It broke my heart. It made me feel sick, that sound.

Newkirk: You see Serena realize, during the ceremony, what’s happening. And she’s trying to protect Osaka now. This is her first Slam win. This is going to be her court, I think, in a couple years. And it’s sad to see it starting that way. But when she’s playing next year, when she’s come back to defend that title, the crowd—they know her now. And they’ll hear a lot more of her story and be much more partisan in her favor next time.

Levin: I feel like it’s inarguable that Serena reacted the way she did because she was losing the match. I think if she was winning, she would have been able to shrug off the coaching call, and she obviously wouldn’t have smashed the racket if she was playing really well. In the piece that I wrote over the weekend, I was a little bit more critical of Serena’s behavior than some other folks, looking at her history at the U.S. Open—the case where a lineswoman accused Serena of threatening to kill her, the case where she told the chair umpire she was ugly inside and said “[if] you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way.” I felt like it was important to look at the history of Serena’s career, and also look at the history of what Ramos had done. This is a guy who’s a stickler, he’s called Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic for ticky-tack stuff.

The thing that made me uncomfortable was that, in response to the piece, there were a lot of white men who were cheering me on and saying, “This was the best piece I read. This is so fair, this is so neutral.” And then many of the people who didn’t like the piece or thought it was unfair were people of color and women. I don’t want to think that I wrote what I wrote because I’m a white man. It is what I believe, and what I thought. But I’m curious for you guys’ thoughts about how identity plays into how we saw what happened.

Thomas: I think you’re right that it’s important to place this into the proper context. I think it does matter that Ramos has a history of calling things by the book, because sexism is a pretty serious charge. And I think that this is an umpire who has called a lot of ticky-tack stuff on men, and so maybe he doesn’t deserve to be so quickly labeled as a sexist.

I know that there was this context of Serena having these confrontations with umpires. And we all know that Serena is a really sore loser. This is not a controversial thing. I mean, she has been a gracious loser, and she is becoming increasingly gracious in the past couple years, but this is a woman who absolutely hates to lose, and that is part of her fire and part of what has made her so great.

But I found myself reaching for a different context. There is a code in tennis that you are supposed to be a good, you know, sportsman. And it matters that the word is sportsman. This is a sport with a history of gentility, which has its roots in a kind of Victorian ethos. And Serena does not fit into that code.

And so, I found myself hearing or remembering not the instances of her threatening to shove a ball down an official’s throat and being really angry in that fierce way that she can be. What I found myself hearing were the slights that she’s heard that are attacks on her, and how she has to carry that all the time, and how that particular attack just made her snap. A lot of people got really upset that she invoked her daughter, saying that her daughter had nothing to do with this, and she was trying to get pity points—

Levin: To be transparent, I mentioned that in my piece. I don’t think I was outraged by it, but I thought that that was an odd thing to mention in that moment.

Thomas: To me, it totally made sense, because I have a young daughter. And to me, the attack on her integrity really mattered because she was saying, “You know what? I am not a bad person here. And I have been constantly labeled as this monster, or this person who doesn’t deserve what she gets, or is a selfish person and an arrogant person.” This racialized, sexualized stuff that people say about her. And that’s why it didn’t feel egregious to me in the same way that it clearly felt to a lot of people.

Newkirk: Yeah, I echo a lot of those points. If you really try to get inside Serena’s head space, try to put yourself in her shoes, as impossible as that is to do, think about the most common criticisms that have been levied against her over the course of her career. I don’t think there are talking heads who when Nadal or Federer or Djokovic wins, they bring up, Is he cheating? Is he doping? He’s too strong to play. There’s always a baseline element among the haters—and there are a lot of haters—that she is cheating, that she is doping, and that even if she’s not doping, the fact that she is physically powerful is somehow an unfair advantage in the game of tennis. These are real narratives that have shaped and pushed back against her career since she started, since she was in Compton. They follow Venus, too, that maybe these people were too athletic to be playing all these dainty women in the ’90s. This was real. This happened.

Thomas: Serena’s body, to a lot of people, seems offensive, that it’s unearned in some way or it’s not right, it’s not natural. It’s crazy. She has one of the most beautiful bodies in the world, and people, yeah, they call her a cheater.

Newkirk: I don’t know if you all saw the cartoon from the Australian cartoonist. It shows an image that’s supposed to be Serena Williams—it’s hard for me to describe it without going back to the old racist Jim Crow cartoons—she has these giant lips that are clearly exaggerated in the same fashion of these old 1920s blackface cartoons. She is crying and she’s just a giant figure having a meltdown, a pacifier flying out of her mouth. The backdrop behind her doesn’t seem to be the umpire Carlos Ramos and definitely does not seem to be Naomi Osaka. It’s a blond woman who is standing in front of a white umpire and the umpire is telling her, “Why don’t you just let her win?”

That’s everything in a nutshell there. It’s taking this moment that’s very complicated and has contours, that deals with Serena’s whole career, deals with the fact that athletes and referees in every sport have a level of engagement that’s within the game. It takes all that and flattens it to this racist, sexist image.

For lots of people in this world, unfortunately, that resonates with them. People are looking for any amount of somewhat legitimate criticism of Serena they can find. They will amplify it, exaggerate it. Anything that is remotely looking to defend her, they’re going to take that and try to tear it down. This is how it works, and that’s the world we live in.

Levin: Serena has been the victim of racism and sexism her entire career. We can go back to Indian Wells and the awful things that happened to her and Venus there. We can cite so many examples of what she’s gone through in her career, and how she’s come through it really admirably and gracefully. Rachelle Hampton, my colleague, wrote this in a piece that we ran last week, that her grace has allowed someone like Naomi Osaka to play in the U.S. Open final.

What I was trying to do in my piece was look at what the umpire has done and what Serena has done and look at the larger context to adjudicate what happened. You can obviously place more importance, as Louisa said very eloquently, on everything that she’s gone through and the bigger issues at play here. But I felt like, you’re almost disrespecting Serena to not talk about the occasions when, as Louisa also said, she’s been a sore loser. By saying that this event that happened on Saturday was something that happened to her, it almost makes it so she’s not an active participant in this. I think Ramos instigated it, and I think he escalated it, but Serena certainly helped escalate it, too.

Thomas: Serena has achieved a certain status in our culture which makes her, on the one hand, an incredible target to some people, and on the other hand has made her untouchable. She’s a legend. She can do no wrong. She’s Beyoncé. She’s a goddess. I think it’s really important that we remember that she’s a flawed human being and that there are flip sides to her competitive drive and her success. She is very much an agent in her own life. She’s not perfect and she’s not untouchable and at the same time, something really sad happened. It happened to her and it happened because of what she did. It’s kind of a mess, honestly.

Levin: She’s certainly not a bad person. She seems like a great person, and she’s flawed. It feels like we can have a more honest conversation about how Michael Jordan is just the most enormous asshole—

Newkirk: He’s a maniac.

Levin: —and that is something that we accept with male athletes. Oh, this guy is a huge asshole, and that’s obvious because of course you need to be a huge asshole to be a champion.

Thomas: It’s funny that Serena’s become this feminist icon, but we’ll achieve equality when Serena’s allowed to be arrogant and occasionally petty and proud of her own success. That will be the moment which shows some sort of equality. I love gracious Serena. I love good loser Serena. I love the Serena that is above all this. But she’s also the best tennis player in history and, yeah, if she were a man would she be afforded some championship-size flaws? Probably.

Newkirk: Every time I see a controversy involving Serena Williams, I think about the weight of what it must be to be Serena Williams, to exist and operate in the space she does, in the game she does, and also in this larger portion now of pop culture and society. Beyoncé has a similar type of weight now where she has to, in real time, while actually being a mother of three kids, while being a real person, be this sort of deity on earth, and also has to navigate people—women and women of color especially—who need her.

They need her precisely because she seems to rile up so many ill feelings among the internet troll, Rush Limbaugh sector of society. She elicits a response that’s a multiplication of what happens in the daily lives of people who see themselves in Serena and Beyoncé. Working-class black women who have never watched a lick of tennis, they see themselves in Serena and Venus, and also now too in Naomi Osaka to a certain extent. They see these women who are forced to exist in a space that doesn’t seem to want to embrace them in the way that they want to be embraced.

Serena is now entering the legacy-cementing phase of her career. That’s when Michael Jordan goes from being the asshole who punched Steve Kerr to being the greatest of all time. That’s where LeBron James is right now. There’s this different valence there for Serena because she does this in a sport that did not want her when she started, and she means so much now to all these people who see a world that increasingly seems to be out to get them.

Take all those things, condense them to that moment when she is now getting a game penalty. I just cannot imagine what it’s like to inhabit that realm, to be expected to behave like a rational person in that moment. So much of this conversation seems to me to be mortals debating what it’s like to really do something impossible. We’re having a conversation at a level where we really can’t comprehend the forces that are at play.