I am a tennis fan.
A MAJOR tennis fan.
Years ago, the City of Schenectady hosted a sanctioned tennis tournament at Central Park, during which my friends and I had the opportunity to see young tennis players on their way to the US Open. The city had corporate partners and built a stadium court. We were able to see the players up close and personal, and even talk to them without the presence of security guards.
We watched 17-year-old Andre Agazzi play a final against veteran Ramesh Krishnan on a steamy Sunday afternoon one August, and we knew he’d be a star. We saw Michael Stich right after he won the French Open and had broken the 100 mph serve at Roland Garros Stadium. He played Emilio Sanchez, who couldn’t return Stich’s serve. Sanchez went over the one of the ball boys, who happened to be my dentist’s son, handed him his racket, and said, “Here, YOU try it!”
We also saw a pair of young African-American sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, who played both singles and doubles, and who stuck mostly together. They seemed kind of shy about socializing; they were traveling with their father. They were new to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. African-Americans were few and far between on the tennis circuit back then.
As the years progressed, Schenectady lost the tournament, mainly because corporate support disappeared. My friends and I missed it, mainly because we used it as a “staycation”–we stayed at home and spent our days at Central Park, watching professional tennis and schmoozing with players, coaches and USTA personnel. We learned the difference between WTA and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which represents the men’s tour. We watched as national media came to our little tournament and reported on the likes of Lindsay Davenport, Pete Sampras, Mats Wilander, Pat Cash and more. Ivan Lendl even made an appearance. For that match, people climbed trees to be able to catch a glimpse of the legendary Lendl.
I’m providing this background so that anyone reading this will realize that I have more than a passing interest in tennis. In fact, I’ve been playing competitive USTA tennis myself since 1988, and took a team to the national women’s 50-and-over championships in 2004. We finished second in the nation at our level!
I’ve attended a number of professional-level tennis events, including the US Open. What happened on Saturday, September 8, when Serena Williams played in the women’s final against a 20-year-old Naomi Osaka from Japan has the internet buzzing. Everyone has an opinion on “how Serena behaved,” and these statements range from “she’s a spoiled cash cow” (actual comment from The New York Times website) to “she’s right, rules are different for men and women,” from “Why won’t Rafa Nadal let that same umpire ever work one of his matches again,” to “well, her coach was sending her signals from the sidelines–he admitted it, after all.”
Serena will celebrate her 37th birthday at the end of this month. She learned to play tennis, along with her sister Venus, on public courts in Compton, California, with her father Richard as her first coach. They moved to Florida and were enrolled at a tennis academy for a few years, but Richard pulled them out of the junior tennis tournament after he heard derogatory remarks from other parents who didn’t like the fact that his girls were winning over others who had had much more professional coaching.
When on the pro tour, Serena and Venus experienced racism from other players during their early years, but they learned to overcome that by playing their best tennis. Serena has been number one in the world and has won 23 Grand Slam tournaments.
Fast forward to September 8, 2018. Seeded 17th, she didn’t expect to be in the final; she’s still on the comeback trail after having had a baby a year ago, and having experienced major medical difficulties associated with the birth. But there she was, facing off against Japan’s Naomi Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian. Most likely (although I haven’t observed this), Naomi has faced discrimination of her own during her short lifetime.
Naomi had blazed through her side of the US Open draw, with incredible shots, a precise serve, and, probably the most important of all, steel nerves that carried her to the final. Serena, on the other hand, had to work harder to achieve her slot in the final.
Just before they went out onto the court, Naomi said of Serena, “I love her.” Serena, she said, had always been her idol. It had been a dream, she added, to play Serena in a Grand Slam final.
During the first set, Naomi took charge, winning 6-2. Serena looked lethargic.
When the second set began, Serena seemed to wake up…somewhat…And then…
Chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued a warning that her coach Patrick Mouratoglou was coaching from the sidelines–a violation. Serena assured Ramos that she hadn’t seen the coaching, that she hadn’t cheated, had a discussion with Ramos, thinking she had talked him out of a formal warning for the match.
Later, Serena became frustrated with her play, and she smashed her racket, an infraction which leads to an automatic violation. Ramos deducted a point from Serena and gave that point to Osaka. Serena became confused because she thought she’d talked him out of issuing the formal violation of cheating associated with the coaching allegations.
Again, she approached the chair umpire. He was not hearing it, and she exchanged heated words with him again, calling him a thief for taking the point away from her. This time, he gave her another penalty, taking a complete game from her.
The stadium erupted in chaos. People in the stands had no idea what was going on, and officials weren’t explaining anything to those who were seated in the far reaches of the arena.
Meanwhile, Osaka, who was playing in the match of her life, waited, patiently, to resume the match. She was then ahead 5-3, after having received a game from the chair umpire.
Ultimately, Osaka won the match, 6-2, 6-4, but chaos reigned again, and Serena had to step in and instruct the fans to stop booing and to celebrate Osaka’s amazing play.
Following the match, Serena’s press conference pointed out the discrepancies in what had been called during the course of the week in the men’s matches vs. what she’d had called against her. She cited what she called a “double standard” in the men’s game and the women’s game.
Here’s what I observed during this week. Mind you, I watched about 75 percent of the matches.
Most coaches sent signals to their players on the court. No one except Serena’s received a violation.
During a match when Australia’s Nick Kyrgios seemed to be fading, the chair umpire for that match came down from his chair and encouraged him to go on, saying something to the effect of, “you can do better.”
Male players were swearing and swinging their rackets around (just short of breaking them on the court). I saw no language violations handed out to men.
In the men’s final, coaches were cheering for their respective clients. Was that coaching? Who knows? Would Carlos Ramos have considered it cheering? Who knows? Why has Rafael Nadal vowed never to allow Carlos Ramos to officiate at one of his matches again? Ask Rafa. Why is it such a huge thing for Serena to make that vow, but no one has attacked Rafa for doing the same?
My takeaway for the sport I love is this.
You cannot have a rule and enforce it selectively. If it’s a rule, it’s a rule. It has no gender, no race, no ethnicity, no sexual orientation. Enforce it or get rid of it.
I don’t condone the losing-the-temper behavior on the tennis court by either sex. However, this seems to me to be analogous to what happens to women in the working world. If a woman has a lot of ideas and/or is outspoken, she’s “overly aggressive.” If a man does the same, he’s “innovative and assertive.” When a man breaks a racket on court, it’s “entertainment”; when a woman does, she’s not “lady-like.” Get a grip. Literally.
The job of an umpire is to de-escalate situations such as the one that took place on Saturday. Instead, Carlos Ramos, by not issuing a warning on the first violation (i.e., the “coaching,” which was not Serena’s fault), poured oil on the fire. He STARTED enforcing a rule that hadn’t been used all week long during the Grand Slam FINAL? It was the exact opposite of the umpire who came down from his perch to help Kyrgios “do better.”
Finally, if someone wants to look at the racism in tennis, he or she will find a lot. Serena and Venus came up and worked their way to the top of the heap despite their race. Yeah, I know, Katrina Adams is the USTA president, and she’s African-American. She was also a professional player. But she didn’t stay on tour, and instead chose to go into administration. Serena and Venus took their cues from Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, who competed prior to the Open Era, held their heads high and ignored the insults. They became their own women, on and off the court.
Someone asked me today if I had been in Serena’s shoes, would I have erupted the way she did. How could I ever say? I remember playing in the final in Palm Springs in 2004, when my partner and I lost. I was disappointed, and I remember that our opponents had a huge following with them. They were cheering every time my partner and I made a mistake. After we congratulated our opponents, I remember saying something stupid to the people in the stands: “Thanks for cheering whenever I made a mistake. I appreciate it.”
Maybe I would have exploded. I don’t know. I still say Serena is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen play in person. She’s overcome so many obstacles that most of us could never imagine–racism, sexism, the murder of one of her sisters…Now she’s wealthy, a self-made woman. Let’s listen to what she had to say, in a calm manner and make some changes. Perhaps if we can get the USTA to take a look at where they’ve fallen down, we can make inroads elsewhere.
One might hope.