As I write this — which has nothing much to do with skepticism — it’s nearly two weeks after the end of the US Open tennis championships, and the media is still producing new articles about the women’s final. This is a historical first: lots of surprising individuals follow tennis, but the general public is usually not much interested.
This year’s tournament featured no less than three umpiring controversies. In this first, umpire Mohamed Lahyani climbed down from his chair to pep-talk self-destructing player Nick Kyrgios, audibly telling him, “You’re better than this.” In the second, Christian Rask issued a code violation warning to French player Alize Cornet, who took a quick moment at the back of the court to remove her shirt and put it back on right side front. This warning, it turned out, was based on an obscure rule, which was then changed as fast as Cornet’s shirt. The third situation came in the women’s final, when Carlos Ramos issued against Serena Williams, in succession, a code violation warning for coaching, then a point penalty for racquet abuse, and finally a game penalty for verbally abusing the umpire. Williams herself went from polite disagreement to full-blown tantrum in half an hour while her 20-year-old opponent, Naomi Osaka, stayed focused enough on playing lights-out tennis to become Japan’s first-ever major winner.
So, what if Ramos had instead been assigned to Kyrgios’ third-round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and Lahyani had been in the chair for the women’s final? Would both outcomes have been reversed? The two umpires play to the same rulebook, but interpreted it as differently as Britain and France interpret EU laws. Ramos, often characterised as the strictest of umpires, might formally warned Kyrgios, while Lahyani’s softer approach might have calmed Williams down. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
This is the third time that Williams’ behaviour in an end-stage US Open match has overshadowed her opponent’s achievement. In 2009, Kim Clijsters reached the final — where she beat Caroline Wozniacki for the title — when Williams was defaulted on match point after threatening to stuff a ball down a lineswoman’s throat. In the 2011 semi-final against Samantha Stosur, Williams was penalised a non-crucial point for “hindrance”.
Since I saw all three matches live, I can say confidently that this time Williams was more controlled than in the past. She also made a genuine, even though only partially effective, effort to console Osaka and get the crowd to accept their new champion when she saw that the winner was being deprived of the chance to enjoy her achievement. It is clear, though, that Ramos’ accusation of coaching hit a personal nerve. The fact that coach Patrick Mouratoglou immediately admitted he *was* coaching to ESPN legitimately does not mean that Williams paid any attention. As she pointed out to Ramos, she doesn’t accept coaching even on the main WTA tour, where it’s allowed.
One school of reaction calls Ramos racist and sexist, and yays that Williams is a role model, standing up for herself, her daughter, and women’s rights. The other holds that the umpire was enforcing the rules and it was up to Williams to contain herself. These things can be true at the same time.
Given the systemic racism Williams has faced all her life, Ramos doesn’t have to be racist for Williams and others to see and experience his rulings as racism. Williams took the warning personally, as an attack on her character; but maybe that’s a mistake anyone with her life experience would make. The wrong-doer here is Mouratoglou, but the rules control players, not coaches.
Similarly, almost every woman will agree that to the world at large an angry man is powerful, but an angry woman is a bitch. Ramos doesn’t have to be sexist for Williams and others to experience his rulings as gender-biased, particularly after the Cornet incident – and also because male players have indeed been more angrily abusive than Williams was on this occasion.
Many have also noted that issuing a “soft” warning first would have been well within normal practice. It’s what Lahyani might have done. But once Ramos had issued the warning, he had no discretion when she smashed her racquet: the next penalty stage was mandatory. That was when Williams erupted.
You can argue that male players have been more angrily abusive to umpires. But here’s the rule:
“For the purposes of this Rule, verbal abuse is defined as a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.”
“Thief”, “liar”, and “You stole a point from me” impugn the integrity of the umpire. Yelling abuse, even threateningly, does not. Calling the umpire dishonest is a different category of offence.
The umpire’s job is to enforce the rules and control the match. On Twitter, the former player Andy Roddick has noted the lack of consistency in the umpires’ approaches. Given that this morning the men’s tennis tour announced Lahyani would be suspended for two weeks, it looks like the direction is likely to be toward strict construction.