Serena Williams has been the victim of misogyny and racism throughout her life, but that does not make her immune from sanction when she steps out of line.
Williams was fined a total of $17,000 (£13,100) for the three code violations she was issued in the US Open final she lost to Naomi Osaka – a tiny fraction of her winnings, admittedly, but a significant fine nonetheless in the context of the sport.
The accusation of sexism she levelled at umpire Carlos Ramos for docking her a game for verbal abuse – she had called him a “liar” and a “thief” – ensured the story would command headlines for days. The stakes then became even higher when two of the most senior administrators in the sport endorsed Williams’ comments and laid the blame squarely at the umpire’s door.
The chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, issued a statement to say he did not feel Ramos was as tolerant to Williams as he would have been to a man. Earlier in the day, the US Tennis Association president Katrina Adams also accused Ramos, and other umpires, of gender bias in a television interview.
“We watch the guys do this all the time,” she said on the ESPN set at Flushing Meadows.
“They are badgering the umpire on the changeovers, and nothing happens. There’s no equality.”
These comments are made without a moment’s thought for all the umpires who are in the chair this week in Chicago, Quebec City and Hiroshima, and in the weeks and months to come. Their authority is instantly undermined.
Vested interest is rife in tennis. Conflicts of interest abound. Adams has a relationship to protect with Williams. Simon is looking out – in purely business terms – for the WTA’s biggest commercial asset.
He did the same for Maria Sharapova at the time of her positive drugs test. First he offered a glowing character reference before due process had even taken place, and then publicly reprimanded the French Tennis Federation for not offering the Russian a Roland Garros wildcard just after her ban had expired.
There are too many voices, too many governing bodies. The four Grand Slams are the pillars of the sport and they compete for influence along with rule-making body the International Tennis Federation, the WTA, which runs the women’s tour, and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which runs the men’s. Reform would be welcome, but do not hold your breath.
Ramos is an umpire with a reputation for standing up to star players, which is partly why he has been asked to take charge of singles finals at all of the Grand Slams, as well as the Olympic Games. He would have faced criticism had he not taken action against Williams for calling him a liar and a thief.
There is too much sexism in tennis. But that should not be used as a smokescreen to excuse the behaviour of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Do umpires show more leniency to men? There is no strong evidence from this US Open, and the Italian Fabio Fognini was fined $96,000 and given a suspended Grand Slam ban for verbal abuse at last year’s event. His offence was far worse, and his language to umpire Louise Engzell unquestionably misogynistic, but at least strong action was taken.
ATP players should think carefully about whether they address female umpires differently to their male counterparts. And if WTA players do feel strongly that umpires treat them more harshly then men, then this needs to be investigated.
The WTA Tour has been fighting discrimination since its inception. Vast progress has been made, and yet there are too many areas where women seem to come off worst. It is only 11 years since the All England Club offered equal prize money, and there are often locker room complaints about the scheduling at Wimbledon.
And here at the US Open, winner Coco Vandeweghe was unhappy the women’s doubles presentation was cut short to allow the men’s singles final to start on time. There was also widespread unhappiness at the warning Alize Cornet received for changing her top on court after realising she had put it on back to front.
Then there is the issue of mid-match coaching, which takes us back to where this story began. On-court coaching is allowed at certain times on the WTA Tour, but secret signals from the players’ box are never permissible. Coaches do it all the time, but it is impossible for umpires to police consistently.
Bring tennis into the 21st century by allowing coaching on every point, says Billie Jean King (and many others).
Tennis is a sport for individuals, who must problem solve themselves, retort traditionalists.