Controversial US Open Final Results in Records Broken and Racquets Smashed

Darya Forhoohar, ‘20

It was a U.S. Open final filled with excitement, though for all the wrong reasons. People buzzed about the action for days after, but the focus was not on the stellar play of champion Naomi Osaka or tennis legend Serena Williams, but on the argument that broke out on the side of the court. This single moment became the most memorable one out of the entire final and sparked a debate over when penalties on improper etiquette cross over into sexist calls from referees.

The match was held on Saturday, September 8th, between Williams, who has only recently returned to professional play after giving birth, and Osaka, a rising star in the tennis world who, even during the awards ceremony, was faced with boos and hostility from a crowd devoted to her opponents, so much so that she broke down into tears. This was Osaka’s first Grand Slam final, but she did not let nerves overcome her play as she defeated Williams in straight sets, stopping her adversary from claiming a 24th Grand Slam title. Osaka created history of her own, becoming “the first Japanese player to win a major singles title in the history of the sport,” according to the official US Open report. At just 20 years of age, she is 16 years younger than Williams, who has won many titles in her illustrious career.

Unfortunately, the excitement of Osaka’s victory was somewhat disregarded due to a moment during the second set in which Williams was docked points due to several code violations, the first being one for being coached during the game. She received a second penalty for breaking her racquet, which lost her one point, and a third for verbal abuse due to her arguing with chair umpire Carlos Ramos. The last violation ensured that she lost the game, which she had been winning before her racquet smashing; later she accused Ramos of having “stolen” said game from her.

The coaching violation, according to an ESPN report of the match, was when Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, attempted to gesture something to her from the sidelines, which is prohibited, resulting in a penalty from Ramos. However, Williams claims to have not noticed Mouratoglou’s signaling and consequently was confused when the call was made, delaying play to protest by telling the umpire “I don’t cheat to win, I would rather lose.”

Later in the set, unforced errors in Williams’ play led to her smashing her racquet out of frustration, which “drew a second code violation, automatically costing Williams a point… Williams told Ramos he should have retracted the initial warning for coaching” (ESPN). Breaking a racquet is an objective violation, so Ramos was not acting maliciously in this instance, however, this would not have cost Williams a point if she had not been given the previous violation for cheating. She continued her argument with Ramos, telling him he owed her an apology for saying she was cheating. He eventually gave her the third code violation, which equated to a game penalty- a serious offense which catapulted Osaka to a comfortable lead and only increased Williams’ frustration, instead of silencing her protests

One could look at the facts of the match and chalk it up to nothing more than a poor judgement call or lapse in emotional control. But the underlying issues of this conflict during the match, as Williams tearfully stated that men in high-stakes matches like this one commit violations “much worse” than what she had done without penalization. Furthermore, Mouratoglou said in a post-match interview that he was indeed trying to coach Williams, but that he had never gotten a violation for it. He went on to claim that Osaka’s coach was doing the same things, and that men’s coaches also do this but do not get punished for it. Accusations of sexism in the match have sparked a debate, especially among those in the world of professional tennis, about how unfair the calls really were. Many have come to the defense of Williams, including former Grand Slam winner Billie Jean King, who tweeted about the double standard in tennis, saying “When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions.” Others have also agreed that the calls (and $17,000 fine for her violations) against Williams were unfair and full of dated misogyny.

As a black woman, Williams has faced substantial discrimination throughout her long career, such as being subjected to drug tests more often than her white counterparts. Although she has won worldwide fame, her 23 Grand Slam titles do not exempt her from the rampant racial profiling still experienced by people of color in the United States today. This may be one of the reasons why she was so adamant about defending her honor to Ramos. But while some people believe he was in the wrong, or that the rules of tennis, such as the no-coaching rule, need to be reevaluated, others claim her behavior was unsportsmanlike and unacceptable in a Grand Slam final. The Times Tennis correspondent Stuart Fraser tweeted his support of Ramos, saying Williams’ behavior was “ridiculous” and that Ramos was “merely doing his job.” Sportsmanship is very important in any match, and many feel that the regulations are present for a good reason: to keep outbursts from players to a minimum. And blaming officials for regulations they did not write is simply taking your anger out on someone who is powerless to change anything. Williams’ rage has been justified by some, but many believe her actions were not.

As for Osaka, her shining moment has been marred by controversy. But her career is just taking off, and she may well have many more opportunities to show off her talent. She noted that since childhood, Williams has been, and continues to be, her idol. Osaka maintained ignorance of what went on between Williams and Ramos, and noted that throughout the whole ordeal, Williams was always kind to her. Amidst Osaka’s tears of the closing ceremony, she was still able to see Williams for the great player she is known to be.