The 2018 U.S. Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka started out as a tennis match and became a very odd, extraordinarily raw, and extremely well-attended debate on fairness and contemporary gender politics. Williams’ escalating on-court feud with chair umpire Carlos Ramos got very personal very fast, and it got into territory that’s rarely broached when one of the combatants is wearing Nike gear and the other is perched awkwardly on a lifeguard chair. In the end, both participants were in the wrong.
The chaos began after Osaka—who won the match and who is amazing, incidentally—had already won the first set. During the second game of the second set, Ramos called Williams for a code violation for getting illegal coaching. The alleged infraction: a subtle hand signal from her longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou, which Ramos said was illegal coaching.
Williams told the chair umpire that it was a misunderstanding—that Mouratoglou was giving her a thumbs up of encouragement rather than engaging in some gestural subterfuge. “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know,” she told Ramos. At this point, things were reasonably civil.
The journey from mild awkwardness to full-on Edward Albee scenario began when Williams smashed her racket in frustration after losing the fifth game of the second set. That’s racket abuse—or, per the extremely fancy rulebook, racquet abuse—which is also a code violation. Williams’ second code violation of the match resulted in a point penalty, which gave Osaka an automatic 15-0 lead in the subsequent game. Williams was extraordinarily pissed.
Based on her comments after the match, it seems Williams may have gotten incensed here because she’d wrongly believed that Ramos had retracted her first code violation. Upon learning that the penalty for illegal coaching still stood, she insisted, again, that she’d done nothing wrong, and pleaded with the umpire to make a public announcement to that effect. “I don’t cheat,” she declared, adding, “You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology.” Her voice then broke as she shouted, “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand [for] what’s right for her, and I’ve never cheated, and you owe me an apology.”
At the next changeover, Williams again accused Ramos of “attacking my character.” She then said, “You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. … And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too!” Upon hearing the word thief, Ramos cited Williams for verbal abuse, her third code violation. The penalty: the automatic loss of a full game, putting Osaka up 5-3 in the second set. Two games later, Osaka would win the match.
The whole thing was ugly and emotionally exhausting, and everyone but Osaka came out looking bad. To understand what happened, it’s important to look more closely at all three events in this sequence: the coaching violation call, Williams’ escalation of the argument after she lost a point, and the confrontation that led to the loss of a game.
On the coaching violation, Mouratoglou contradicted Williams after the match, admitting that he was indeed trying to coach her. He said, though, that she hadn’t been looking at him. He also defended himself by arguing that everybody does it: “I was [coaching], like 100 percent of the coaches in 100 percent of the matches.”
If Williams truly wasn’t looking at Mouratoglou—and she was extremely adamant that she wasn’t—then she shouldn’t have been given the code violation. (Then again, she somehow knew Mouratoglou was giving her a thumbs up, so maybe she was looking at him. Or maybe Ramos just told her about the thumbs up—that part of their conversation wasn’t audible.) Anyhow, the official Grand Slam rule book for 2018 reads (emphasis mine):
Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up). Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.
If Mouratoglou was signaling but Williams wasn’t receiving those signals, that can’t possibly constitute communication between a player and a coach. Given that they were on opposite sides of the court, it would seem very difficult for the chair umpire to determine with absolute certainty that Williams was buying what Mouratoglou was selling, thumb-wise. Mouratoglou is also right that illegal coaching is rampant and rarely called. As ESPN’s Chris Evert said after the match, “It’s against the rules and every coach does it.”
On the matter of Patrick Mouratoglou’s thumb, then, Williams was right and Ramos was wrong. A rule that is unclear and is capriciously enforced is by definition a bad rule and should either be altered or discarded. Given that the rule does exist, a sensible umpire shouldn’t invoke it unless he witnesses an unmistakably flagrant violation. Mouratoglou’s hand signal did not rise nearly to that level, and so Ramos should have stuck to doing whatever it is that chair umpires do when they’re not saying “Love” instead of “zero.” If you’d like to argue that this whole episode was Ramos’ fault, because none of it would’ve happened if he hadn’t made that first dumb call, then you would not be wrong.
Williams was right to say she doesn’t cheat; there’s no evidence she does, based on the typical practices of her sport. She was wrong to say Ramos owed her an apology, though. While illegal coaching isn’t called all that often, it’s also not anywhere close to unprecedented. There’s also no stigma attached to it. No one thinks that Svetlana Kuznetsova, Garbine Muguruza, Alexander Zverev, Novak Djokovic, or anyone else who’s been penalized for or accused of getting in-match coaching is some kind of enormous cheater. Based on tennis standards, then, Williams should’ve accepted the code violation, moved on, and not thought of it as a vicious personal attack.
Instead, Williams invoked her daughter as proof she’d never cheat. Since giving birth last year under extraordinarily harrowing circumstances, Williams has been admirably open about the joys and struggles of parenthood. She is a role model as an athlete and as a working parent, and should be celebrated as such. That being said, the notion that she couldn’t have possibly broken a rule because she has a daughter seems … misguided. Parents break rules all the time. Williams doesn’t cheat at tennis because she doesn’t cheat at tennis. Her daughter has nothing to do with it.
By the time she mentioned her daughter, though, everything had spun out of control, and the match was speeding toward its awful, inevitable conclusion. The loss of a game, especially in a Grand Slam final, is an extraordinarily severe penalty, a fact both umpire and player were surely aware of. ESPN’s Mary Jo Fernandez argued that Ramos should’ve warned Williams that she was getting close to going over the line. That seems right. But Williams should’ve been aware of the potential consequences of threatening Ramos—“You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live”—and accusing him of being a liar and a thief.
After Ramos docked her a game, Williams appealed to a higher authority, asking to see the tournament referee. The 23-time Grand Slam champion, who by this point was in tears, said, “That’s not right. This is not fair. This has happened to me too many times.”
What Williams was referring to there, obliquely, was her tortured history at the U.S. Open. In 2004, she got an official apology after a series of atrocious calls went against her in a loss to Jennifer Capriati. The umpiring was so egregiously bad in that match—if you haven’t seen the video before, you must watch it—that it inspired the sport to institute an instant replay system. During the Capriati match, Williams was more incredulous than anything, asking at one point, “What the heck is this?” Afterwards, she was less charitable to the umpire, Mariana Alves, saying, “I’m extremely angry and bitter. I feel cheated, robbed. I guess the lady didn’t want me to be in the tournament any more. I’d prefer it if she did not umpire my courts any more, because she’s obviously anti-Serena.”
Five years later, Williams got into an ugly confrontation with a lineswoman who called her for a foot fault—a very rare infraction—at a crucial moment in her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters. The lineswoman accused Williams of saying she would kill her; Williams denied it. Nevertheless, she was assessed a point penalty, which bounced her from the tournament, because all this happened when Clijsters had match point.
And then, in 2011, Williams threatened chair umpire Eva Asderaki, who penalized her for shouting “Come on!” before a point was over. Williams’ extended thoughts, which spilled out in an on-court monologue:
You ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way. Because you’re out of control—totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing? And I never complain. Wow. What a loser. You give a code violation because I expressed who I am? We’re in America last I checked … don’t look at me, I promise you don’t look at me ‘cause I am not the one. Don’t look my way.
It’s hard to argue that Williams acted inappropriately in 2004. The calls against her in the Capriati match were egregious, and she tried her best to play through them. After she lost, she vented her frustration, as thousands of her fellow competitors have done before and since.
It’s hard to argue that Williams acted appropriately in 2009, 2011, and 2018. In all three cases, she was sunk by controversial, iffy calls. I would even go so far as to say she was personally wronged by all of these decisions. But … that’s sports. Controversial, iffy calls are so commonplace as to be banal, and overcoming these sorts of calls is a totally normal thing for champions to have to do. Usually, Serena Williams has been able to do that. (Twenty-three Grand Slams!) In these three high-profile cases, she failed publicly and spectacularly. That doesn’t mean she’s an awful person. But it doesn’t mean she’s blameless either.
During Saturday’s U.S. Open final, Williams claimed that what was happening on the court was bigger than the game. She told the tournament referee that she was being punished because she’s a woman, and she continued that line of argumentation in her post-match press conference:
I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. 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 taken a game from a man because they said thief.
No less a legend than Billie Jean King agreed with her:
The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins did, too, noting that Ramos “wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way,” pointing out that Rafael Nadal had verbally attacked the chair umpire with no repercussions.
It’s 100 percent correct that Williams is fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality. It also must be said that she and her sister haven’t just faced sexism. They’ve been subjected to both obvious and subtle racist attacks for their entire careers, and they’ve handled those attacks with remarkable grace, piling up trophies and inspiring women of color like Osaka to take up the game.
But coaching violations get called on both men and women. It’s also worth noting that Williams said after the match that she’s never had an issue with Ramos before, and that he’d always been a great umpire. Even if Williams is correct in saying that the umpire wouldn’t have penalized a man for saying he was a thief, she’s still not arguing that she acted appropriately, just that the double standard is that male tennis players who behave like boors—and there are a bunch of them—don’t get punished for it. (John McEnroe did once get defaulted from a Grand Slam match, though.) If Ramos was wrong—and he was wrong, multiple times, and irretrievably fouled up what should’ve been a great match—that doesn’t mean Williams was right.
The big loser in all this was the day’s big winner. During her victory ceremony, Naomi Osaka looked like she wanted to crawl under the stage. The crowd booed and booed and booed some more, not because Williams’ fans were mad that Osaka had won but because they were outraged about how the American star had been treated. When it was her turn to speak, Williams implored, “Let’s not boo any more. We’re gonna get through this, and let’s be positive. Congratulations, Naomi! No more booing!”
Williams was incredibly gracious in that moment. But it was undeniably a moment that she’d helped instigate. When Williams said, “Congratulations, Naomi!” her 20-year-old opponent still looked stricken.