Serena

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It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”

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