Why this is a case of sexism rather than sore loser: Understanding the context in which Serena Williams lost points and ultimately the final of the US Tennis Open
There is only one headline emanating out of this year’s US tennis open. For once, it is not a celebration of a man’s tennis prowess, for example, discussing Novak Djokovic’s 14th Grand Slam title. Nor is there much analysis of how Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese tennis player to reach and win a Grand Slam final. Instead, the headlines are dominated by three code violations ‘committed’ by Serena Williams, Osaka’s opponent in Saturday’s final, and the subsequent response by Williams to the umpire’s decisions.
It was a mixture of emotions during the final on Saturday. Elation at seeing the success of Osaka, only 20 years old, and witnessing her humble and heroic victory over such a tennis superstar as Williams. And at the same time, there was sadness at seeing Williams fail to win in her own ‘backyard’ and it was uncomfortable at times to watch her relationship with her fans at Flushing Meadows turn bitter in some quarters of the crowd. But what has emerged since then, amongst the hundreds of newspaper articles, cartoons, blogs, social media coverage, and even the press releases from tennis federations and governing bodies themselves, is the split in how this incident has been interpreted. In some quarters, Serena is a sore loser and she broke the rules, that the umpire was just implementing the rules. To others, and to myself, this is yet another incident involving questionable treatment of one of our greatest athletes, man or woman, from any sport, and gives credit to this argument of whether this represents a wider current of sexism in the sport of tennis. One-off incidents are on their own, perhaps subjective and can be viewed in all many of ways. But when they occur on a regular basis, one has to question the presence of a pattern of something much deeper and more insidious than just an umpire’s hard treatment of a well known tennis player.
For anyone who has not read the numerous press stories covering the final at Flushing Meadows, Serena Williams was adjudged by the chair umpire of the game, Carlos Ramos, to have broken three rules during her game with Osaka. First, she was given a point penalty for a coaching code violation: her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was deemed to have given hand signals to Williams during the game. Since then, Mouratoglou has admitted he DID give signals to Williams but she did not see them and asserted that the practice of coaches advising their players during a game is common in the sport. Second, Williams was also punished by a point penalty for smashing her racket onto the ground. Thirdly, and what cost her ultimately the match, was a game penalty for a code violation of verbal abuse towards Ramos. Williams was heard calling him a ‘thief’ and a ‘liar’ for accusing her of ‘cheating’ by being coached by Mouratoglou from the crowds, and repeatedly asked for an apology from him. Ramos is known to be a ‘tough’ umpire, criticised in the past for example, by Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal from the men’s side of the game who have been on the receiving end of similar point penalties from the Portuguese referee. He is known to interpret the rules literally and apply the strictest punishment. He has, however, been criticised by many tennis commentators for applying the letter of the tennis ‘law’ too harshly in Saturday’s game. That often, a softer approach is taken for example, for coaching code violations. What is also of relevance and noteworthy to point out as a result of this incident, is that it has seemingly caused a split between the numerous tennis federations in their support for either Williams or the umpire. The International Tennis Federation has released a statement to express their support for Carlos Ramos and have defended his professionalism and integrity. However, both the CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, has backed Williams’ argument that her treatment by Ramos is a symptom of sexism in the sport, arguing that there should be “no differences in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men and women”, and so too has the President of the US Tennis Association thrown the weight of her organisation behind Williams by criticising the “double standards” of how certain umpires treat male and female tennis players.
And this is what this incident is all about: The interpretation of seemingly ‘objective’ rules (created of course, and a reflection, of the values and priorities of those who have written them) and the application of them according to the gender of the player, based on the umpire’s ideas and expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman. We’re not talking here about gender as biological sex; male or female, by the way. We are talking about our social and cultural ideas towards what should be the behaviours, roles and actions of men and women. Our tennis umpires, the majority of them White men, will have their own ideas towards the capabilities and competencies of the men and women on the court in front of them. And with such power that they possess, this then becomes a case of who gets to make the rules and who has to live with them. This incident is also about the ways in which we interpret the different emotional displays demonstrated by men and women. As Billie Jean King has stated this weekend; when women are emotional, they are deemed ‘hysterical’. When a man is emotional, like McEnroe back in the 70s and 80s right up to now with players like Nick Kyrgios, they are ‘outspoken’. The portrayal of women as emotionally unstable is based on socially embedded stereotypes regarding biological difference and how this affects performance in sports. Sexism in tennis is well documented and deep-rooted. The gendered nature of tennis, like most sports, is explicit, evident in its very structure. The entire elite level of the sport is segregated by gender: the ATP World Tour for men and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) for women. In many of the competitions, there is a significant pay gap between the men and women. The structure of the competition too is set up in a way that positions the men’s game as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the tournament; I always question why men’s final games are on the Sunday and the women’s are on the Saturday for example. Are women just the warm up game, the supporting act, for the ‘big game’ (the men’s final)? And of particular relevance for our research here in the Carnegie School of Sport, the culture of sexism in tennis is made evident by the face of its workforce. It is inherently White and middle class, with little diversity of face amongst its leadership and coaching ranks. For example, relevant to the story of Serena Williams, Black and Minoritised Ethnic individuals are rarely represented in positions of power in tennis, and many groups of women for example, more generally, are not represented at the higher performance levels of the coaching pathway. Only 8.5% of women tennis players in the top 200 are coached by a woman, and there is no man in the ATP top 100 coached by a woman. It is outside of the scope of this blog to discuss the variety of reasons for this lack of gender equity in high performance tennis coaching. But as our research shows from our programme of work into gender equity and sports coaching here in the School, the culture and structure of the sport continue to make it difficult for certain social groups to feel valued and supported, as well as progressed, as tennis coaches.
And this incident at the US women’s final on Saturday involving Serena Williams is also significant because yet again, it is a story involving Williams. In the past year or so alone, she has dominated many of the tennis headlines. Much has been written about her return to the sport having had a baby in 2017. Consequently, she lost her number one ranking and also her seeding at a number of tournaments. In May this year, following her appearance at the French Open in a ‘cat suit’ outfit, worn by Williams to improve blood circulation since the traumatic birth of her daughter, the organisers of the tournament have now implemented a strict dress code. This of course, preceded a similar incident of policing what female tennis players wear when Alize Cornet was penalised for briefly removing her top at the US Open in August when she mistakenly had put her shirt on back-to-front. It is hard to think of the last time that a male tennis player was scrutinised or even penalised for what he wore or didn’t wear during a game.
Williams has often struggled to get the recognition she deserves as a tennis player and as an athlete, instead, she has been racialised and gendered. Referred to often as the best ‘female athlete’ in the world or best Black female athlete. Rarely is she included in broader discussions of the best athletes of our time; exemplified last year by John McEnroe’s remark that Williams would be ranked 700 in the world if she played on the men’s circuit. She has rarely had it easy. Since her tennis journey began, when her and her sister Venus would be out hitting balls in their local park aged around 5 years old, and they were taunted by other children who called them “Blackie One and Blackie Two”. To when she stepped out onto the court of her first final at the Indian Wells Open at the age of 19 to a cacophony of boos from the white, middle class crowd, where the N word could be heard. To now where she is 36 and has experienced injustices, discrimination, and unequal treatment for most of her professional and personal life. And yet again, to her, a man is preventing her from reaching the top of her game and making it difficult to be the best that she wants to be. Yes, Williams should not have lost her temper. Yes, Williams is fiercely competitive (as most elite athletes are). Yes, Ramos was too harsh and reactive in his application of the rules and punishment of Williams, but he alone is not perhaps the sole reason for Williams’ response at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday. This incident is a long line of injustices, not just for Serena Williams, but for many female tennis players now and historically. And unless we reflect on why Williams’ reaction has been interpreted in the way that it has, and engage in why this could, and should, be deemed sexist within the wider context of the sport, then we will learn nothing from it. We will continue to replicate gender and racial inequality, to name just a couple of lines of discrimination (we have also found evidence of ageism intersected with sexism in tennis coaching for example, in our research here in the School of Sport), for female tennis players long after Williams has finished playing. The first step to overcoming injustices is to have the conversation and discuss what these stories mean for us. So let’s start the conversation.
Leanne is a Professor of Sport and Sociocultural Studies and Director of the Research Centre for Social Justice in Sport and Society within the Carnegie School of Sport. Her research utilises a critical sociological lens to examine sport organisational and coaching cultures to address gender equity and diversity within sport coaching workforces.