What Exactly Happened with the Serena Williams Incident?

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Not often do we see a forgettable incident overshadow a historic match in any sport. Unfortunately for Naomi Osaka, the Japanese 20-year-old, her historic run to a first-ever Grand Slam title was spoiled by a nasty row between her competitor, Serena Williams, and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. Osaka became the first ever Japanese – male or female – to win a singles Grand Slam title. But, it was Serena’s situation that made all the headlines.

The first violation

It all started early in the second set. In the second game of the set, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou was caught by chair umpire Ramos to be giving Serena some hand signals. It looked like a thumbs up but he was motioning both his hands back and forth, followed by a gesture that seemed as though Mouratoglou was satisfied Serena had understood what the signal meant. Mouratoglou later admitted that he was, indeed, signaling Serena to attack the net more. But here’s where it gets complicated. Ramos found Mouratoglou cheating and hence, issued a code violation on Serena for receiving on-court coaching. ITF’s rule is a little harsh on the player in this case. Even if the concerned player didn’t actually see the signal, the umpire has complete authority to charge him/her with a violation for a crime he/she didn’t commit.

There’s no clear indication that Serena Williams did see the signal. But, she can be heard telling the umpire that a thumbs-up doesn’t necessarily mean she’s cheating. They don’t have a secret code, and that, she doesn’t “cheat to win, she’d rather lose.” Following this, when the camera focused back on her coach, he could be seen smirking for a moment.

The second violation

Until now, Serena was a little agitated but nothing out of control. Banking largely on a capacity pro-Serena crowd, she broke Osaka. It was only then things went haywire. Osaka broke back twice and Serena smashed a racket, which asked for another code violation – resulting in a point penalty. That’s when Serena got agitated about the earlier coaching code violation. She kept emphasizing that Ramos should apologize to her because she never cheated and Ramos’ decision only implied that she did. She was upset that it was an attack on her character and not something she stands by. Now, here is something Serena did that was a bit hypocritical of her. She called him a liar and a cheat. While she was upset about an attack on her character, she called Ramos a cheat and did the exact same thing.

Ramos had had enough by then and gave the third and final code violation of verbal abuse, which resulted in a game penalty. Since this was one of the biggest matches in tennis, a lot of casual viewers opined this was unjust. But, what they won’t understand (and that’s perfectly alright) is that the rule states – a player gets a warning for the first violation, a point penalty for the second, a game penalty for the third and subsequent violations. It’s up to the umpire’s discretion whether he/she disqualifies the player or not.

Could Carlos Ramos have handled it better?

Different chair umpires have different methods of dealing with players who are violating rules. At 2018 US Open itself, we saw Mohamed Lahyani’s pep-talk incident with Kyrgios. That’s one way of dealing. What Ramos did with Serena Williams was unnecessary. He didn’t, for once, talk to Serena to sort out the coaching. This wouldn’t have drawn much attention if it were a 1st round or a 2nd round match at any random event. Instead, it was a Grand Slam final. On such an occasion, maybe Carlos Ramos needed to handle the situation better. The least he could do was to try to talk it out with Serena. It’s a Grand Slam final. It’s up to the chair umpire to not let player tantrums overshadow the game. After all, it’s a bad advertisement for the sport, and Ramos needed to step in and handle the situation with more authority.

Serena Williams wasn’t entirely correct

Even more surprising was Serena bringing a sexist angle to the situation. She was visibly frustrated and said it wouldn’t have happened to a male player. Keeping in mind the sexism that’s prevalent in tennis, fair argument from her. But, the fact that male players have also been penalized before for verbal abuse against a match official, only outweighs her argument. Fabio Fognini, for example, was banned from two consecutive Grand Slams for calling a female chair umpire the c-word. Of course, thief and liar, no matter how insulting they are, do not come close to that. But, in hindsight, all three words are directly attacking the umpire’s character and that’s not something a player should do.

If we go further back, John McEnroe was defaulted from Australian Open 1990 due to consecutive code violations – audible obscenity being the final nail on the coffin. This is also where Serena is not entirely correct. It’s absolutely true that male players often lose their temper on court and throw a tantrum against the officials. But, not often does that happen on their third offense. For Serena Williams, it was her third offense and hence the game penalty.

Serena Williams is an icon in the tennis world for her all that she’s been through. Her legacy as a sporting legend will remain untouched. And, more than just being an athlete, she’s become the face of hope for people of color, over the years.┬áComing from a poverty-stricken background, she’s stood up for what’s right. But, is it possible that her massive fame and power had somehow led her to a sense of entitlement? This is not an attack on Serena, to be clear. It’s just trying to find a logic behind Serena’s actions. She could have been a little more gracious and not let emotions get the best of her. But she did, and understandably, that took away all the charm of the match. The crowd didn’t congratulate Naomi Osaka on her win. They heavily booed to the point that the youngster couldn’t help herself from breaking down.

There will be a lot of opinions and counter opinions on this incident. But, from now on, ITF and Grand Slam committee will have to enforce stricter rules for both players and umpires alike, so that something like this doesn’t happen again. In all fairness, the incident garnered such attention because it was the US Open final, and because it contained Serena Williams. Not just another match. Again, Serena could’ve avoided this incident. Carlos Ramos could’ve avoided this incident. But they didn’t, and the result is for all of us to see.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Honestly I feel the blame for this incident lies squarely with Serena, that’s how I felt watching it at the time and getting some of the details filled in here has only consolidated that opinion in me.

  2. 1. If Serena didn’t see the signal her coach was sending to her, how did she know that he gave her a “thumbs up” as well? She argued that Ramos “did not understand” that her team don’t signal to her, and that they were only giving her a thumbs up. Surely that should prove that she was looking at her coach, precisely as he was coaching her. She knew what hand signal he gave her, and she mentioned it on court!

    2. Serena never allowed Ramos an opportunity to diffuse the situation. He leaned down to try and speak with her several times as she was demanding that he announce she wasn’t cheating. Each time he opened his mouth to speak, she told him not to speak to her (“Don’t speak to me. Don’t you speak to me. You owe me an apology!”) You can see from his expression that he was shocked by this. He eventually nods in resignation, realising that she doesn’t want to listen, and he allows her to keep “venting”. He tried to diffuse, Serena refused to even listen.

    3. He could have penalised her multiple times for verbal abuse, BEFORE she called him “A liar” and “a thief too!”. He did not jump straight to handing Serena a game penalty, she forced his hand by continuing to question his impartiality, and by accusing him of lying. The only liar on the court, either wilfully (see 1.), or through ignorance of what her coach was doing, was Serena. She owes Ramos an apology, he owes her nothing.

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