Stunned Serena: What the controversy at the U.S. Open means for women in sports

Stunned Serena: What the controversy at the U.S. Open means for women in sports

Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan

For Naomi Osaka, the match was about tennis. For Serena Williams, the match was about something more.

On September 8, 2018, Williams entered her 31st Grand Slam final. Her opponent entered her first. A seasoned veteran, Williams was favored as the higher seed in the match, and the audience assumed that the tennis legend would easily bag her 24th Grand Slam title. Playing with a competitive fire, however, Osaka wouldn’t go down so easily.

The first set came and went without much chaos, and Osaka shockingly emerged with an early lead. As the second set began, however, it became apparent that things were not going according to plan. Early in the set, sideline referee Carlos Ramos called a code violation on Williams for coaching, insisting that William’s coach’s gesticulations constituted as illegal contact between the player and coach. Williams asserted that Ramos had been wrong, stating “I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose.”

After the first call, things went downhill quickly. Williams received two more penalties for destroying her racket and later arguing with the referee, ultimately calling him a “thief” for taking a point and later a game from her in conjunction with the violations.

The match ended in two sets, with 6-2 and 6-4 victories from Osaka. But although the final was over, the controversy continued: what should have been the highlight of Osaka’s career to date was mutilated in a trophy presentation ceremony which turned hostile. With tears in her eyes, Osaka lamented the match’s ending while Williams comforted her.

Image courtesy of Sporting News

After the presentation, Williams held a post-match press conference in which she clarified her statements, suggesting that the issues on the court that day pointed to a greater manifestation of problems in the sport. “For me to say ‘Thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘Thief,’” Williams said.

She also stated that “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff.”

With a brief overview of the events behind us, we now turn to address the ramifications of the turmoiled match.

The strengths of Serena’s argument:

  1. Athletes are no longer just athletes. Colin Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem to protest police brutality. LeBron James spoke out politically, stating that he will not “shut up and dribble”. Why should William’s perspective be any different? As a woman in sports, she constantly has to overcome barriers that are not presented to her male peers. By providing a voice for the women of sports, Williams points out the issues that lie in an arguably sexist system and calls athletes and officials everywhere to action.

  2. Williams is a mother now. She must beget a better future for her daughter. If having a child doesn’t ignite the desire to enact change in Williams, what will?

  3. Williams has faced criticism and sexism over the course of her entire career. With this match, she reached her breaking point.

Image courtesy of NBC News

The weaknesses of Serena’s argument:

  1. Were the penalties due to the referee’s love of the rules? Or were they due to his innate sexism? These are questions that we can never truly answer.

  2. If Williams wants a better world for women in sports, shouldn’t she spearhead the movement to improve conditions? In making a scene at the U.S. Open finals, Williams tainted what may be one of the best wins of Osaka’s career; a day that her opponent had been dreaming about since her childhood. Williams made her argument at the cost of Osaka’s finest hour, spoiling the young players amazing victory.

It cannot be definitively said whether or not Williams was the victim of sexism. Hopefully her outburst will call attention to a deeper issue, forcing better standards in the sport. However, the platform on which she protested the treatment she received dragged another woman down in a moment in which she should have been lifted up. The conclusion? Women in sports still have progress to make, but this progress will be made more quickly if athletes support one another without exception.