The closer you look the more unbelievable it becomes.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
Serena Williams doesn’t lose very often. So, it’s fair to say anytime someone gets the best of her on the tennis court, it’s newsworthy. And people were rightfully praising 20-year-old Naomi Osaka for her shocking upset during this past weekend’s U.S. Open.
However, the match has been tainted by charges of sexism and unfair conduct after Williams was twice penalized in highly questionable fashion.
The first incident came when she was docked a point for breaking her racket. Williams was then penalized a second time after accusing umpire Carlos Ramos of lying. Calling an umpire a liar might sound like a huge deal and the incident literally left Williams in tears. The International Tennis Association also fined her $17,000 after the match on Sunday.
But after the match, a number of current and former male tennis players took to Twitter to recount their own contentious interactions with Ramos that did not result in penalties. Several journalists and other athletes chimed in as well.
It’s just the latest example of Williams confronting sexism in and around her sport but it may be the most profound and publicly visible moment yet.
Photo by Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for USTA
Although not everyone supported Williams. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote in a New York Times op-ed that:
It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.
Still, even Navratilova acknowledges that Williams has the “scar tissue” of being treated unfairly at tennis events over the years, including at the U.S. Open. Whether or not it’s right for women to “get away” with the same behavior as men, there’s no doubt she’s being held to a different, higher standard and that’s simply not fair. The choice is not being given to her or other women about how they regulate their own behavior.
And consider how many male tennis players have been applauded for similar behavior. John McEnroe has literally made a career in and out of tennis cashing in on his famously combative personality.
If her display was wrong, the burden should be on the International Tennis Federation to make sure the rules of conduct apply to everyone, not just women.
Otherwise, they are effectively censoring one of the sport’s most iconic and important players in a way that will only serve to turn away other women who are thinking of picking up a racket and perusing their own tennis dreams.