By The Nation
The timing couldn’t have been more wrong. For the first time, a Japanese woman was winning the US Open and a Grand Slam tournament. The sport was witnessing an inspiring transition from one generation to the next in the form of a battle between a reigning queen of the court and a much younger opponent who had long idolised her. And then Serena Williams spoiled it all.
The American is readily forgiven for blowing her cool initially. She’d received a warning from the chair umpire because her coach up in the bleachers was sending her signals – a fact that Williams unfortunately tried to deny even as the coach was admitting it to a reporter in the stands. Next, in a moment of frustration at not being on top of her game, she smashed her racquet on the court, losing a point automatically for abuse of equipment.
Her temper exploded and she began lambasting the umpire, calling him a liar as well as a thief for “stealing” the point from her. For this, a game was taken away, and the score abruptly went from 4-3 to 5-3, putting Naomi Osaka within reach of the title.
The Japanese completed the job with relative ease, but unfortunately, what preceded the triumph spoiled it. Osaka was denied full enjoyment of the thrill of a lifetime, instead being driven to tears as the raucous New York crowd erupted in boos during the awards ceremony. The anger was directed entirely at the officiating, but Osaka thought it was all on her. She wasn’t given the chance to breathe properly, let alone celebrate.
Williams was losing the match before her troubles with the umpire began, but her temper tantrum was a ruinous distraction from what could have been a thrilling battle. Her arguments lacked the weight of credibility, too. As former tennis great Martina Navratilova pointed out later, Williams virtually called the umpire a cheat when she and her coach were the ones doing the cheating.
And it certainly didn’t help matters when she played the gender card, pointing out – with considerable basis – that male players rarely get called out for a coaching violation. True, tennis has always suffered an anti-female bias, so Williams’ complaint struck a chord with many fans. But as Navratilova again noted, the argument that women should be allowed to cheat just like the men is hardly a noble appeal for sporting equality. “If the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed,” she wrote in the New York Times. “[But] 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.’”
As in most other sports, the superstars of tennis frequently belittle the referees and disregard the rules. If they get away with violations, though, it shouldn’t be cited as an excuse for everyone to be let off. The integrity of the game must be preserved as much as possible. The deterrent effect of potentially facing penalties when caught must be maintained.
Serena Williams was caught up in the heat of the moment and surely not simply trying to distract attention from her foundering performance. But her aggressive interaction with the umpire hurt her reputation, befouled Osaka’s big day, and will have a lasting impact on tennis.