Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

Naomi Osaka, a new star of women’s tennis won the singles crown at the US Open of 2018. But the headlines were all about the losing finalist Serena Williams, and her battle with Umpire Carlos Ramos.

The match filled the front-page headlines as well as the sporting columns around the world. It captured triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors long associated with tennis and sport. It was raw emotion mingled with tennis of the highest quality.

The setting: Male and Female GOATS.

Serena Williams is crowning a glittering career at the age of 37 by returning to competitive play less than a year after becoming a mother. One final goal eludes her. Winning her 20th singles title at a grand slam event. This would exceed the record set many years ago by the Australian player Margaret Court, and match her 24 total including doubles events.
It matters to Serena. Maybe to add weight to the claim by many players that Serena is the Greatest Of All Time Female (GOAT) tennis player, matching Roger Federer’s claims as the male GOAT. The debate is intensifying as both Roger and Serena find a resurgence in form at an age when less super-humans are planning their subsequent retirement plans.

Maybe the motivation is fuelled in part by a controversy over the stance of Margaret Court over Women’s rights, led by Billie Jean-King, a mentor of Serena Williams, and a formidable champion in her own right. Over time, Serena has also fought vigorously for equal pay and other forms of equality for women tennis players.

The young pretender

Facing Serena is Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old Japanese player little-known outside the world of tennis. Insiders, however, have noticed her arrival among a group of emerging young players who have been able to achieve grand slam tournament successes. This has been assisted by the interruption through Serena’s maternity period. Indeed, Serena faced Osaka shortly after return, in a tournament in Miami, and lost 3-6, 2-6, The loss was largely ignored as happening at a fortuitous time for the young Japanese player. This overlooked the unexpected recent result in winning her first senior event in the Indian Wells tournament.

The Serena Slam

Serena went close to achieving the exceptional feat of a clean sweep of grand slam events in the year 2015. She was already champion of three of the four annual tournaments, the Australian, French, and Wimbledon. The story began to reach beyond the tennis reports.
The climax was to be at the US Open, always held in early September. It became labelled The Serena Slam.
I remember it well, as I decided to follow the entire tournament as it unfolded, from Europe, taking as my theme the tensions facing sporting superstars. The story was as fascinating as I hoped. I wrote a book about it, titled Tennis Tensions. The tensions, as so often happens, upset the happy ending for Serena at the time. She went out at the semi-final stage. I suspect that this experience added to Serena’s motivations to end her career with a slam not a whimper.

The Osaka Serena match

The crowd had already delighted in an American success. In the mixed doubles, the ebullient  Mattek-Sands scraped though with partner Jamie Murray, providing  a satisfactory prelude to the main event.

The singles final started with the high-tension Flushing Meadows crowd in even more high-tension mood than usual. Overwhelming support for the last American hope of another victory of the tournament. Williams conceals any nervousness with customary ferocious body language which can reinforce feelings of inadequacy in opponents. But this opponent matches her in physicality and shot-making.

The unlikely starts to happen. Williams is rattled. Fails to deal with the aggression and sprays losing shots. Osaka plays with the freedom granted to the player no one expects to win. Breaks. Then breaks again to take the first set. Pundits expect Serena to reestablish the rightful order of things.

Except it works out quite differently. Serena is now visibly unsettled. Ready to find pressure release valve. Which she does with misdirection of her energies towards the Umpire.

What follows is documented accurately in many reports. What is less clear is the assessment of what happens. Serena receives a warning for (illegal) coaching from her coach. Serena is incensed and demands an apology of the umpire.
Play continues, Serena is unable to gain control, loses serve, smashes racquet, receives a second correct code violation.
The match is drifting away, and Serena redoubles her invective directed at the umpire. Receives third correct code violation of loss of a game virtually gifting the match to her young opponent who manages to look as nothing untoward is happening, and it it is, it really is nothing to do with her. Remarkable composure.
No good can come of this.
The match still requires winning. Osaka finds the mental resources to finish with a strong service game. The match ends. Recriminations begin. What should be a joyous victory ceremony ends in tears from the winner. Serena pleads with the crowd that they treat the winner with respect.

The wider issue

The wider issue is hotly debated. Although the term debated is to strip what happened of its intense emotions and beliefs asserted.

Broadly, there is support for Serena, who states in her press conference she was fighting for women’s rights. Others, including Billie Jean King agreed that there are double standards at play. The alternative view is that the unfolding events left the Umpire with little choice.

Truly a dilemma of leadership. Perhaps it is the dilemma facing the umpire that offers most learning opportunities. What might have happened differently. Is it possible or desirable to ignore context? The context of the importance of the match? The long experience of a top umpire including Serena’s celebrity status, and at times her melt-downs at perceived injustices to her, and in her view to others?img_08401

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