Becker: Osaka and Williams both deserve better from the tennis community
Courtney Becker | Monday, September 10, 2018
I was sitting in the student section on Saturday when I got a push alert: “Naomi Osaka of Japan upsets Serena Williams in the U.S. Open to win her first Grand Slam in her first appearance in a major final.”
I was disappointed, but I didn’t think about the U.S. Open again until I got home. I’m not a huge tennis fan, and I really only become a casual viewer during major competitions, so even though I’d wanted Williams to win, it wasn’t the first thing on my mind and it wasn’t something about which I was planning on writing.
Then I saw the headlines.
The top story on ESPN’s website at the time read, “Serena umpire spat mars Osaka’s U.S. Open win.”
I wish I could’ve written this about Williams triumphantly capping off one of the greatest returns in sports by winning her 24th Grand Slam singles title, tying Margaret Court for the record, just a year after she fought through life-threatening complications while giving birth to her daughter. I might not be the most avid tennis watcher, but I can’t help but be mesmerized by Williams when she plays. Despite this loss, she is still the best in the world right now and arguably the greatest of all time.
The next natural option to addressing Osaka’s upset of Williams would have been just as worthy. Osaka is 20 years old. She is the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam and she did it by beating her hero. That is a pretty amazing story.
But to simply write about that version of events and block out everything else that happened during and following the match would be naive.
The highlight reels from the match don’t contain as much of Osaka’s dominance — she won 6-2, 6-4 — as they do of the “umpire spat” from Williams. In the second game of the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos called a coaching violation on Williams. She argued against the call, but Ramos’ warning stood.
Later, in the fifth game of the set, Williams smashed her racket, resulting in a point against her for losing her temper and racking up a second violation.
That’s when things really took a turn.
The coaching violation call was still bothering Williams, and she confronted Ramos about it again, this time expressing outrage that he would say she was “cheating” and demanding an apology from him. This continued later in the match, when Williams called Ramos a “thief” for costing her a point.
The comment cost her one more. Ramos issued another penalty against Williams for “verbal abuse,” ultimately resulting in Osaka being given a game down the stretch in the second set.
At this point, it didn’t matter how well Osaka was playing. The home crowd was against Ramos, and Osaka by extension, in their indignation on behalf of Williams. When Osaka won, she pulled her visor down over her face as she walked to the net, crying, to hug Williams. She repeated the move, still crying, while fans booed at the start of the trophy presentation for her first Grand Slam title. Williams reached over to comfort her and subsequently told the crowd to stop booing, but the damage was done. Osaka’s victory was ruined.
I’ve already admitted I don’t follow tennis too closely, so I’ll leave debate about the coaching violation to others (the racket one is pretty cut and dry). But to me, two things about the way this final turned out are very clear.
The first is that Serena Williams is held to different standards than other athletes, in tennis or otherwise. There is not a doubt in my mind that many are scoffing at Williams’ accusations of sexism influencing the final penalty (I’m already seeing people do so on Twitter), but there is an inherent double standard in society and in sports when women argue a call. Officials are far quicker to penalize a female athlete for talking back than they are to penalize a male athlete.
Beyond that, Williams is the best right now, and that unfortunately comes with being held to a different standard. She faces pushback from officials frequently, both on and off the court. And the fact that this isn’t the first time Williams has made headlines for getting into a dispute with an umpire probably doesn’t help her case, even though it should have no bearing on the match at hand. So yes, whether by virtue of her gender or her status in the sport, Williams is officiated differently.
The second, more important point is that the crowd’s treatment of Osaka was horrible. She may have just beaten the GOAT, but this athlete is still younger than the vast majority of the people booing at that event. In colloquial terms, she’s still a kid, and the fact that she felt bad about her accomplishment because it upset the home crowd, the fact that I know more about Williams’ fight with an umpire than the performance of the 2018 U.S. Open champion, is devastating.
It’s impossible to know what would’ve happened in the match without the drama of the second set, but Osaka had already set herself up in a pretty good position and was playing well enough to achieve the same outcome either way. Fans need to do better, be more mature and leave any frustrations with officials out of a deserving winner’s moment to celebrate.
So congratulations to Osaka. But the United States Tennis Association and tennis fans should take a good look at this mess and ensure that what happened to her moment never happens again.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.