For tennis fans, it was a meltdown that rivaled the “You have got to be serious” episode of John McEnroe. It was arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time throwing a fit that eclipsed the storyline of Japan celebrating its first grand slam winner.
“I don’t cheat! I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that? You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life!” Serena vented with muted rage.
She went on to accuse the umpire of being a thief and got slapped with her third penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, which gave her 20-year-old opponent a crucial game point.
Here are some of my thoughts about possibly one of the most controversial grand slam finals in recent history.
Missing the forest for the trees: I think umpire Carlos Ramos missed a few steps in this match. I would like to view the umpire role as one that ultimately ensures that the sport is played fairly and that the game is won through a battle of skills and wills.
Umpiring should be viewed as an art, not a science. Sometimes understanding and honoring the spirit of the law is perhaps more important than following the letter of the law. During the last few seconds of an NBA game, you would see NBA referees become more liberal, allowing contact and exercising more discretion in calling for fouls, letting the players decide the game so neither team wins on “calls.”
I can’t fault Ramos for calling out Serena’s coach for coaching. I can’t fault him for penalizing Serena one point because of the racket abuse. But I can certainly fault him for penalizing the 23-time grand slam winner a third time, which gave her 20-year-old Japanese opponent one game, essentially pushing Serena over the proverbial edge.
‘Professionalism and integrity’
The International Tennis Federation (ITF), Ramos’ employer, has since come out in full support, saying “[His] decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were re-affirmed by the US Open’s decision to fine Serena Williams for the three offenses.”
“It is important to remember Mr. Ramos undertook his duties as an official according to the relevant rule book and acted at all times with professionalism and integrity.”
I am not questioning the umpire’s integrity, I am questioning his judgment. Technically, he played it by the book, which is exactly why I think he was wrong. There are times the elegance of wisdom is needed so desperately to prune the arrogance of knowledge.
He could have used his discretion, but he chose not to. In his desire to honor his duties, he dishonored the spirit of the sport and played a role in the finals game that he never should have.
Diva meltdown: I think it was shameful how Serena tried to play the race, gender and motherhood card. It was in bad taste, it was ludicrous and her behavior was cringe-worthy. It was like a 7-year-old birthday celebrator deciding to throw a tantrum and knock down the cake so that nobody could enjoy it—except this wasn’t her party. It was Naomi Osaka’s coming-out party, and it was ruined.
As much as I hold the opinion that umpire Ramos should have exercised more patience and discretion, the same can also be said of Serena. Her coach did confess that he tried to coach her, and she did break her racket. How about some old-fashioned personal accountability and humility?
She did get a lot of support from different groups for her actions, among them Katrina Adams, president and CEO of the United States Tennis Association, chair of the US Open and chair of the Fed Cup. With her multiple leadership positions, you would think she would at least try to be objective—but as soon as she got the mic at the awards ceremony, she stated, “Perhaps this is not the finish we were looking for today…”
Who’s we? Does the chair of the Grand Slam speak only for Americans? A few minutes later, when Naomi got the mic, she basically had to apologize for beating Serena, because as the chair had said, she did not follow the script.
Serena is indeed arguably the greatest of all time and the most decorated female athlete of the modern era. She has brought the game to new heights, and we thank her for what she has done for the sport. But unfortunately, to whom much is given, much is required. She may not have signed up to be a role model, but like it or not, she is.
Sports and competition bring out the best and worst in all of us. Athletes put in hours and hours to train and to hone their skills to bring their game to the next level. It might be unfair for us to demand as much perfection from their behavior as we do from their game.
We’ve all had our diva moments; fortunately, most of us just didn’t have millions of eyes on us when we did. —CONTRIBUTED