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.”

Here’s Why I Watched 28 Hours of Tennis Last Week

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First of all, it’s July.

No college football for seven weeks, watching summer league basketball is like watching warm-up drills, college baseball is done, college softball is done, the National Spelling Bee is done, major league baseball was on hiatus for the All Star Game, the Little League World Series hadn’t started yet, and Battle of the Network Stars … well, let’s just remember that last week’s highlight consisted of Corbin Bernsen thumping  Cornelius Smith, Jr. in basketball.

Or, I could watch round-after-round of tennis from Wimbledon.

I confess an unhealthy regard for pomp and circumstance, the trappings of tradition, and the genteel reminder of what sport once looked like in an age of determined, and, yes, blissful, ignorance of a world beyond the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, home to the oldest tennis championship in the world.  The Championships, Wimbledon (usually referred to as Wimbledon) are played on grass courts, the only one of the Grand Slam or major championships to be played on grass.  The which would be more than enough to make Wimbledon refreshingly outdated and charming, even if dangerously close to the merely precious .  By the end f the second week, it is true, the courts show some wear, but at the start, just after they have been trimmed by what is a virtual grass Zamboni, they are magnificent.

Place, then, remarkably fit young men and women, dressed with uniform modesty in white on the courts of green, and the spectacle is unlike most other athletic contests with the obvious exception of the other pastimes played only by mad dogs and Englishmen, games such as croquet, cricket, and lawn bowls, games in which wearing white was eminently sensible at noonday in the far reaches of the now almost forgotten empire.  “Tennis whites” were the standard of dress for decades, deflecting the heat and pronouncing the player wealthy enough to have easily stained clothing dry cleaned, or, one presumes, cast off, given to urchins begging at the gates or to housekeepers puzzled by the prospect of donning a tennis dress.  In addition, tennis sounds different from other sports, at least from the sports I watch.  I have to assume that crowd noise builds in lawn bowls, but just as the tree falling in an empty woods creates an enduring koan, the tumult of the bowls crowd has to remain hypothetical.  Now that golf’s formerly hushed and properly reverential followers have given way to raucous “In The Hole” yahooing, it is only tennis in which decorum remains as essential as Wimbledon’s signature strawberries and cream, decorum so carefully guarded that players wearing black (or blue) underwear are escorted off the courts and advised to make sure that every layer of tennis wear togs as white as the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow .

The sharp contrast of white against a green background is pleasing indeed, but the greater pleasures are best described in contrast to other sports.  Want action?  There are no huddles in tennis, no trips to the mound; coaches are sequestered in seats at a remove from the courts. Yes, there is the opportunity for an instant replay; each player is granted three challenges to the umpires’ calls, But, and this is part of the on-the-ground strategy that sets tennis apart, a challenge used ill-advisedly is a challenge not available in a situation that may determine the outcome of the match.

Want power?  A powerful serve hitting the opponent’s court at up to one hundred and forty miles per hour is comparable in many way to the home run, but that serve is likely to be returned with close to equal force, initiating a true battle, shot-by-shot, game after game.  Some might argue that although tennis is nothing but action, an evenly matched pair of players can play at the height of their powers for hours until one finally outmatches the other.  True, but every minute of that long set or match is filled with constant and often spectacular action.  While a baseball game does occasionally sparkle as a great throw from centerfield catches the runner at the plate, or a third baseman spread eagles on the line to grab a rocket shot to the hot corner, we’re lucky to get one or two web gems per game.  Great tennis shots?  In an exchange on any length, we’ll see at least two or three per point.

Points?  How about this?  There are no ties in tennis; there are no matches that end up nil-to-nil.  One tennis player will score every time the ball is served, and should the game score remain even, a tie-breaking game finishes things off with a flourish.  The outcome of a hockey or soccer game can come down to a shoot-off.  Please.  Tennis does not lower itself to an unseemly trading of powerful serves to end a game.

It should also be noted that tennis is the only major sport I know in which the quality of women’s play and men’s play are recognized and appreciated with equal enthusiasm.   There are cycles, eras in which the men’s game is rich with great rivalry, but there are equally compelling eras in which remarkable women players seem to emerge at the same time. When we speak of tennis legends, we are as likely to think of Martina Navratilova as we are to think of Pete Sampras.  I’m not sure that there is another sport which could produce a female athlete such as Serena Williams who is considered the most dominant athlete of a decade, comparable to Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady.

Every sport has its share of odd characters, and here I’m assuming again that there are croquet cut-ups and bawdy cricketers, and tennis has its share of bad boys and girls, but not as vile as those in, say, the NFL and NBA.   Would I choose to ride in a closed car with any of the NFL’s unreformed wife-beaters?  Uh, no.  Could I survive the same trip with John McEnroe or Ilie Nastase?  Sure.

I have my favorites, to be sure, and Britain’s Andy Murray is not among them.  He went off again, berating an umpire at Wimbledon when a ballboy inadvertently put a women’s ball into play during a match that Murray lost.  Ok, I’m not going to go into the difference at Wimbledon between the ball used by men and that used by women; it has to do with fuzz, and that is outside the scope of this article.  In any case, yes, Murray was foul-mouthed and surly in the heat of battle, but … it was Murray who responded to the off-handed sexism of a reporter who declared that Sam Querrey, who had defeated Murray, would be the first American player to reach a final match at Wimbledon since 2009.  “Male player”, Murray interrupted.  That correction came quickly and in the midst of an interview conducted within minutes of what must have been a devastating loss for Murray.  And, it is Murray who has considered boycotting the Australian Open, another Grand Slam event, as the venue includes a court named after a noted homophobe, Margaret Court.

So I spent some part of two weeks watching the brilliant play and unexpected upsets that Wimbledon brought us this year.  Do I intend to settle in to watch play in the somewhat less rarefied mess that is the US Open, played on hard courts in New York?  Am I preparing for another half-month at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows – Corona Park, Queens?

Yep.