Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

September 10, 2018

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


Help choose the sporting leader of October from McCaw, O Connell, Owens and Klopp

November 1, 2015

Richie McCawLeaders We Deserve subscribers are invited to submit candidates for Leader of the Month. The following attracted attention in recent news stories. This post reveals my four sporting leaders of October. Unsurprisingly, three were from the Rugby World Cup

Richie McCaw

Increasingly recognized as  rugby’s leader of his generation before and after New Zealand’s World Cup win and maybe as the greatest of all time [GOAT]. Photo is of Richie in 2008 from wikipedia.

Paul O Connell

Not for his heroic injury-wrecked Rugby World Cup, but for his long term impact as captain on the Irish Rugby team.

Juergen Klopp

New Liverpool manager Klopp identified for his charisma even before the victory against Chelsea [Saturday 31st October]

Nigel Owens

Takes top spot refereeing the final of Rugby’s World Cup. Rated best in the World.  Humorists in Wales said they know Wales would get to the finals. Owens is  already a celebrity off the field for his courageous stance on gay rights.

Comments

Comments and suggestions of nominations to add to the list are welcomed.


HMS Westminster: A Tale of Two Control Ships

November 15, 2007

admiral-lord-west.jpg

Two years ago, Admiral West was in control of HMS Westminster directing the international fleet review for the bi-centennial celebrations commemorating the battle of Trafalgar. This week, as newly appointed security minister under the command of Gordon Brown, the former Sea-Lord was taking a little time to find his sea legs

‘I’m just a simple sailor’. The quote by Admiral Lord West on Wednesday November 14th 2007 will become part of contemporary British folk-lore.

The news story cropped up during a period of parliamentary struggles. Gordon Brown, having flourished in the first few months as Prime Minister, had found his Government falling behind in the opinion polls in renewed onslaughts from David Cameron’s conservatives.

The political battles increased in intensity after the summer break (almost as time-honoured as the military practice of a pause to get the harvest in). In the United Kingdom, Her majesty’s loyal government writes the speech which the monarch then reads to her representatives gathered at the Palace of Westminster. The speech is then ritually debated by said representatives.

One of the multiplicity of issues under scrutiny is a bid by the Government to increase the time in which suspects may be held in custody without charging. The debate involves deeply held concerns about liberty and the principle of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus (ad subjiciendum) is Latin for “you may have the body” (subject to examination). It is a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined … Sir William Blackstone, who wrote his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 18th Century, recorded the first use of habeas corpus in 1305. But other writs with the same effect were used in the 12th Century, so it appears to have preceded Magna Carta in 1215 … Michael Zander QC, Emeritus Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, says: “Habeas corpus has a mythical status in the country’s psyche.

Background

The specific circumstances which embroiled Lord West were those accompanying the security measures following the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. The Government under Tony Blair had failed to obtain further legal powers for the police to hold suspects without charge. Gordon Brown, on his appointment in the summer of 2007 attempts to revive and revise the proposals. As part of his idea of a Government of all the talents, Brown appoints Admiral West to a ministerial position, in August, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office.

The newly ennobled Lord West has been set a task to review security in public places. This includes the appointments of non-nationals to the Health Service. This brief was a swift response to one of the first challenges faced by the new Prime Minister. A foiled terrorist attack at Glasgow airport revealed involvement from a terrorist cell including medical specialists who had gained entry to the NHS with inadequate security screening.

The Queen’s Speech

This week the debate on the Queen’s speech drew to a close. Lord West was preparing his report, meeting with various committees, and fitting in a round of press interviews. Gordon Brown was facing a testing Prime Minister’s question time, which would include tricky attacks on his intended security legislation.

The BBC played its part in generating and sustaining the basic story line

Lord West told the BBC at 0820 he had yet to be convinced of the need to extend the 28 day limit, a view at odds to most recent ministerial comments. Just over an hour later, after a visit to Downing Street, he told the BBC that he was actually convinced of the case. He later insisted he had not changed his mind, saying as a “simple sailor” he had not chosen his words well.

The blogging community seizes on the story with enthusiasm.

Why the hell have we got a ‘simple sailor‘ in charge of our anti-terrorism strategy? Were all the complicated ones busy?

What’s going on?

This is a rather nice example of the dynamics of a modern political story. At face-value, the reader is left with the impression of bungling incompetence from people who should know better. Stereotypes are reinforced. Brown is a control freak who manipulates others into shows of puppet-like obedience. Lord West is expected to toe the party line at all times, like the other puppets.

Students of leadership are aware that beliefs tend to be grounded in ‘common-sense’ assumptions which can simplify the picture to an extent that we ignore aspects that are uncomfortable, or that do not fit in.

It tends to be worth looking beyond the story for those inconvenient facts. Bloggers are strong at unearthing facts others would prefer to leave buried. However, righteous indignation is often more of an influence than efforts to examine and critique a story. For righteous indigation and balance, you have to go back to respected sources. Even that’s a matter of judgement. The Guardian’s view is not everyone’s idea of a balanced analysis, but it did seem to reach another level of insight here.

During his naval and governmental career, security minister Lord West has repeatedly spoken out against government policy. Before he stood down as head of the navy last year, Lord West, who distinguished himself in the Falklands war when he was the last to leave the sinking HMS Ardent, warned that cuts to the service would leave it unable to protect Britain’s coastline.

The former first Sea Lord has condemned the decision by the Ministry of Defence to allow Royal Navy hostages held by Iran to sell their stories, has harboured serious doubts about the legality of the invasion of Iraq, and consulted lawyers over whether naval personnel could face war crimes charges.
Despite, or possibly because of, his criticism of Tony Blair’s administration, West was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for security and counter-terrorism in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”. His remit included conducting a review Britain’s terror laws, which has led him – once again – to put himself at odds with the official government line ….

A case of herding cats?

In an earlier post we reported on an answer to a question on leadership in the House of Lords. It was put to another distinguished naval commander, Admiral Lord Michael Boyce. His reply was instructive:

Question: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

Answer: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats!

The additional talents recruited into Gordon Brown’s Government are a new species, with evidence of some of the characteristics of the cross-bench feral felines.

Leadership Lessons?

Where to begin? A cautionary tale, indeed for newly appointed Ministers, and maybe newly appointed Prime Ministers. But are there lessons for a wider range of students of leadership?

Might the case be worth studying by any military officer considering a new career in the political arena for indications of necessary changes in comunications and decision-making styles?

Or might there be lessons for any professional taking up a role a distance away from his or her previous career path?

Above all, what actions and by whom might have resulted in a different and more desirable outcome?