MATTHEW ALLEN ’21
At the 2018 US Open Finals, tennis star Serena Williams caused quite a stir with her most recent tirade. The first set marked a turning point for the rest of the match, when Williams received her first code violation by means of “coaching”; she was accused of looking up at her player box for advice, and thus violating the rule that communication of any kind between coach and player is strictly prohibited. She later smashed her racket after losing a point, costing herself another code violation and the deduction of a point. The third code violation sparked the most controversy when, after minutes of bickering with umpire Carlos Ramos, Williams referred to him as a “thief” for stealing a point from her, which docked her a third code violation and the loss of an entire game. Williams’ outburst was certainly unforgiving—her worst one yet, I may add—but one that was justified at the hands of calls rooted in fierce sexism.
While exchanging words with Ramos, Williams was quick to point out that “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot worse, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen to them… but because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me”? She’s right. Male players have said much worse than her—and they never got penalized for it. Retired male tennis player James Blake took to Twitter to admit that even he has “said worse and not gotten penalized”, recalling occasions in which he would receive “soft warnings” from the umpire before any real violations were given. This brings up another question: even if Williams’ comments were uncalled for, shouldn’t she have first received a “soft warning” just like her male counterparts? Instead of penalizing Williams an entire game, the umpire just as easily could have sat back in his chair, warned her to calm down, and allowed the situation dissipate.
Serena Williams’ tirade exposes a double standard that is deeply ingrained not just in tennis, but in all gendered sports. When women argue with authority they are deemed “emotional”—their actions “out of line”—and they are punished for it; when men do the same, they are “passionate” and praised for standing up for themselves. Take Williams’ outburst at the 2018 US Open and suppose you were to substitute her with any male tennis player; the word “thief” would go deliberately unnoticed by the umpire, the rest of his slander would be dismissed, and his actions would be celebrated by the media. But because Williams is a woman who chose to speak up, her comments were not taken as lightly and she was reprimanded for it. Sadly, this does make perfect sense; Ramos, someone who has been scathed with ferocious remarks in the past by several male players, was not going to allow a woman to tarnish his well-polished name. Considering the much more vicious outbursts that male tennis players have managed to get away with, where they scream rampantly at the umpire and spew out handful of curse words, calling someone a “thief” does not at all merit the loss of a game.
Sexism in the world of tennis, by the way, is nothing new. A few weeks prior to the US Open, Williams received flack for wearing a black catsuit at the 2018 French Open. According to the president of the French Open, the catsuit was considered disrespectful to the sport of tennis despite it being worn for health reasons, as Serena Williams is someone who is prone to life threatening blood clots. It also comes as no surprise that at the same US Open this year, French player Alizé Cornet was given a code violation for changing her shirt on court during a match, a ritual that male players engage in on a daily basis. As you can see, women in sports are subject to intense scrutiny and are expected to behave at an unreasonable level of properness.
With all this being said, Williams is long overdue for an apology. The tennis court is no place for sexism. And while it’s terrible that Serena Williams had to take the blow for future female tennis players—and that there was any blow to be taken in the first place—I think it’s a necessary step not only for the future of the WTA, but for all female sports.