Rules, Norms, and the Unknowable Greatness of Serena Williams

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All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height.

— Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

Serena Williams saw red. For a few minutes on the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the greatest champion in tennis history was driven to anger so immense the world dropped away. The rest of the match, from that point forward, was about chair umpire Carlos Ramos’ penalty decisions and Williams’ fury. Their altercation and the intricacies of tennis’ rule book became the basis for a conversation that leapt the barrier between sporting controversy and popular culture discourse.

Williams has always been a lightning rod for criticism. She has had to fight her entire career for a place in in the white, male dominated world of tennis and no amount of on-court excellence will insulate her from baseless attacks on her humanity and character. Her passionate disagreement with Ramos is easy to miscategorize as an angry one between an entitled player and an umpire enforcing the rules.

The Rules

The initial incident that sparked Williams’ anger was a code violation for coaching. The rules around coaching in tennis are clear. The 2018 Official Grand Slam Rule Book states: “Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.” The enforcement of this rule is wildly inconsistent. Coaches often give direction to their players without penalty. Williams’ coach said as much when he was asked about the incident immediately after the match. He admitted to coaching, said he did not think that Williams had seen the signal he gave to her, and noted that all coaches, in both men’s a women’s tennis, offer covert advice to their players.

Williams reacted to Ramos’ call instantaneously. She was losing the match – at this point Naomi Osaka had dominated the first set and looked solid at the start of the second. She approached Ramos, denied she had received any direction from her coach, and, pointing her finger, said in a ringing, clear voice, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.” She was reacting to the implication of the call: that she was willing to break the rules to win as the match slipped away from her.

Clearly influencing Williams’ reaction, which could seem outsized to an observer – coaching violations are about the coach’s actions, not the player’s – was Williams’ instinctual response to even the vaguest implication of misconduct. As early as 2001, tennis fans accused Williams and her sister of throwing matches to benefit each other and even a hint of impropriety would open the door to racist, misogynistic attacks on her character. Ramos, a by-the-book umpire, categorized the warning for the coaching as an official warning rather than a “soft” or “informal” warning, making it a first offense in the Point Penalty Schedule.

Outlined in Article III, Section S of the 2018 Grand Slam Rule Book, the Point Penalty Schedule states: “First offence – warning. Second offence – point penalty. Third and each subsequent offence – game penalty.” Williams continued to fume at Ramos, eventually taking her frustration out on a racquet, smashing it after having her serve broken. This was a second offence: racquet abuse. Following the Point Penalty Schedule, Ramos docked a point from Williams. Osaka started her next service game at 15-0.

The penalty, and the realization that the initial coaching violation call had been an official warning, angered Williams further. She thought Ramos had retracted his ruling. This misunderstanding culminated in her calling Ramos a “thief” for taking a point from her. For this comment, again following the Point Penalty Schedule, Ramos gave Williams a game penalty for “verbal abuse.” The score leapt from 4-3 with Osaka serving to consolidate her break of serve to 5-3 and Williams serving to stay in the match.

Article III, Section P of the 2018 Grand Slam Rule Book states, “Players shall not at any time directly or indirectly verbally abuse any official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site.” The rule is not detailed, but under most interpretations, Williams was likely in violation. There is obviously room for interpretation, but calling an official a “thief” would seem to fall well within the bounds of the behavior this rule is meant to curtail.

The Norms

Ramos is known as a stickler. He has given coaching warnings before, even to top male players like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal; not a common practice. This was an instance where his fierce adherence to the rules was uniquely unsuited to the moment. He failed to understand the emotional contours of what was unfolding on the court in front of him. Faced with a challenging situation he clung more adamantly to the rulebook. Ramos was technically correct in his warning and in both of his penalties. The literal correctness of Ramos’ actions, however, does not change the fact that what happened to Williams was deeply, indefensibly wrong. Whether or not Williams broke the rules is the least important aspect of what transpired between her and Ramos.

Some analyses have focused on Williams’ behavior. Martina Navratilova, a great champion who, herself had to overcome incredible adversity to be accepted as a top athlete, wrote in the New York Times, “we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should…be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court.”

Navratilova’s criticism is valid, but misplaced. Of course, Williams’ behavior was not ideal. However, as responsible as she is for her actions, the penalties levied against her were more draconian than those a man would face in the same situation. More so than Williams’ behavior, Ramos’ willingness to make calls well outside the norms of tennis rule enforcement is at issue.

Williams’ entire career has been predicated on her ability to rise above attacks on her personhood. She has been criticized for everything: her physique (too manly), her style of dress (too provocative), her style of play (boring/too reliant on her serve), her words (not friendly enough), her continued winning (too dominant). She and her family have been subjected to overt racism on multiple occasions, most notably at Indian Wells in 2001 when the n-word was shouted repeatedly, leading both Williams sisters to boycott the tournament, one of the highest profile non-Slam events, for over fifteen years.

Throughout all of this, Williams has kept on winning and fighting for respect. No matter how many titles she accumulates or records she breaks, the irreducible fact of her womanhood and blackness will forever damn her in the eyes of many. Anything about her that is less than perfect is pounced on instantly and magnified. But even perfection is unattainable in a system that refuses to acknowledge greatness in women and people of color, because no matter how astounding her achievements, the system will still treat her as inferior.

Whether or not Williams broke the rules does not matter because that was never what the incident was about. It was about a woman, confronted with a perceived slight against her credibility and integrity, feeling the weight of two decades of racialized, gendered attacks on her character, and responding. Williams has learned how to push that history and anger aside and win. However, in Ramos’ coaching warning, to paraphrase Willa Cather, all of the things and people who had conspired to exclude her from tennis were no longer remote and negligible; they were present and trying to take something from her and she was not about to let them.

It is neither normal for players to immediately receive true penalty warnings for coaching, nor is it usual for the Point Penalty System scale to be so hastily introduced. At some point, the umpire usually slows down the building altercation, whether it is between the two players or between the umpire and the player and says something like, “If you carry on like this, I will dock you a point.” or “If you continue to speak to me like this, you will receive a game penalty.” There is a moment of understanding on the part of the umpire that the emotions the player is feeling may be momentarily beyond their control. Williams was not extended this curtesy. Victoria Azarenka said it best when she wrote on twitter, “If this was a men’s match it wouldn’t happen like this. It just wouldn’t.” The implication being that an umpire in a men’s match would have found a way to keep the situation from escalating, or that the accusatory “thief” epithet would have been brushed off and not treated as “verbal abuse.”

Former male players quickly spoke out in support of Williams. James Blake and Andy Roddick both tweeted admissions that they had at times exhibited worse behavior when they were professional players and had not received similar penalties. This does not make their behavior or Williams’ right, but it does make the severity of the punishments given to Williams unusual and indefensible whereas it indicates that behavior like that Williams displayed is generally accepted – or at least, more accepted – from male players.

Men, and especially white men, are allowed to be imperfect and have their aberrant moments excused. At the 2009 US Open, in the final, Roger Federer argued with the chair umpire. He was annoyed at the amount of time his opponent was taking to challenge calls. Federer’s argument began with “Don’t tell me to be quiet. When I want to talk, I’ll talk. I don’t give a s***” and culminated in him telling the umpire, “Don’t f****** tell me the rules.” Under the definition of verbal abuse given in Article 3, Section P, this is a clear violation. Federer received no warning and during the course of the rest of the match, incurred no point or game penalties. At the end of 2009, he was awarded the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award.

An Imperfect Champion

Williams has always been an imperfect champion. And that is okay; great even. As the poet and essayist Claudia Rankine wrote, “She shows us her joy, her humor and, yes, her rage. She gives us the whole range of what it is to be human, and there are those who can’t bear it, who can’t tolerate the humanity of an ordinary extraordinary person.” In Saturday’s final, Serena’s excellence was unquestionably on display. She was being outplayed by Osaka, but the fact that she dominated the rest of the competition – some of whom were barely born when she won her first US Open in 1999 – one year after a life-threatening pregnancy, is a testament to her unkillable spirit. Catherine Whittaker, commentator for Amazon Prime UK and host of The Tennis Podcast, noted that throughout the US Open Williams, though the last player to finish a match the previous night, was the first on the practice courts the next morning.

Anyone who has studied the history of racism, especially in the United States, would be unsurprised that beyond the solidarity of some former players, little understanding has been extended to Williams and two dominant narratives in the press coverage of the final were 1) that the penalization of a black woman’s behavior was justified and 2) that the woman being penalized, more so than the man meting out the punishments, was responsible for the negative impact the incident had on another woman of color.

The Unknowable Greatness of Serena Williams

Perhaps the most pernicious strain of commentary to come out of the Williams/Ramos altercation is the implication that Williams somehow robbed Osaka of her moment of triumph. The ESPN highlight video posted on Youtube is titled, “Serena Williams’ dispute overshadows Naomi Osaka’s final win.” That could not be farther from the truth. Williams defended herself against perceived slights sternly and eloquently until she was so overcome with emotion she was in tears. She was repeatedly offered no explanations, just increasingly severe penalties. The cloud cast over Osaka’s win was one mostly of Ramos’ making. By blindly enforcing the letter of the law, he showed how penalties are applied more harshly to some players than others. Still standing strong in the end was Williams who, during the trophy ceremony, calmed the raucous crowd and put an arm around Osaka, encouraging her victorious opponent to enjoy her first grand slam title.

The aftermath of the US Open final has included a threatened umpire’s strike of Williams’ matches and a widely circulated racist cartoon that presents Williams as a screaming ape-like figure and Osaka as a silent caricature in the background; more proof, if any was needed, of the system Williams has always fought against. Even in the face of all this adversity, Williams will never stop fighting. The ecstasy of competition burns brightly within her and as long as she lives, that ecstasy will be hers. She will live for it, work for it, die for it; but she will have it time after time, height after height. No one will ever dim that fire, or take it from her.

1 COMMENT

  1. Indecent and disrespectful behaviors needs to be removed from the public eye … Ramos was right. It has nothing to do with gender, ethnicity, religion but human values and respectful behavior. Williams owes an apology to Naomi, Ramos, the public and all mothers in this world before she can become a role model ever and turn her fire into a positive force.

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