The debate over the Serena Williams controversy was a dialogue of the deaf

by Paul Thomas / 22 September, 2018
Serena Williams vents against umpire Carlos Ramos. Photo/Getty Images

Serena Williams vents against umpire Carlos Ramos. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Serena Williams tennis umpire

Serena Williams’ US Open outburst was unbecoming but the umpire made a mess of his response.

The debate over Serena Williams’ confrontation with umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open women’s final was mostly a dialogue of the deaf.

Williams’ critics tried to keep it within the white lines: tennis, like all sports, has rules; the umpire’s job is to ensure the rules are adhered to. The rules apply to everyone, regardless of how big a name they are or how many grand-slam titles they’ve won.

Williams broke the rules and Ramos penalised her, as he was obliged to do. She went full diva, thereby harming her reputation, bringing the game into disrepute and spoiling the highlight of her 20-year-old opponent Naomi Osaka’s career to date. Her offence was compounded by a spurious campaign to deflect the focus away from what was an open-and-shut case of conduct unbecoming the greatest women’s tennis player – and perhaps the greatest tennis player, period – of all time.

Williams’ defenders saw a much bigger picture. For them, the sporting context was almost incidental. This was a sexist power play: a white male authority figure trying to put a feisty African-American woman in her place for no reason other than the old and obvious. It was also a textbook example of the familiar double standard: men can flout the rules, challenge authority, upset the applecart and they’ll be hailed as personalities, rebels with a cause. When women stand up for themselves, they’re portrayed as shrill, unattractive and unsporting.

A lack of common ground can indicate zealotry on one side, or both, or that the issue is too complex for black-and-white thinking. In this case, it’s the latter. Those who argued that Ramos “was only doing his job” didn’t delve very deeply into what his job actually is. Keeping the score and enforcing the rules is the easy part of officiating. The difficult part, the part that requires empathy, awareness, a sense of occasion and an appreciation of the pressures the competitors are under and the demands they’re making of themselves, is managing the contest.

The bigger the event and the higher the stakes, the harder and more important the management component becomes. The fact that afterwards, people were talking about an ugly row between the umpire and one of the finalists, rather than the game itself or the advent of an engaging new star, indicates Ramos made a mess of this key aspect of his job. That may seem like a harsh judgment, but that’s sport: harsh judgments go with the territory.

That said, it was hard to escape the feeling that some of what was said and written in Williams’ defence contained an element of stretch. It’s one thing to suggest men get away with more in terms of bad on-court behaviour, another to claim that all male players get away with murder all the time. Although Australian Nick Kyrgios did get some empathetic treatment from an umpire recently, his tantrums and meltdowns have made him an object of derision or pity rather than admiration, grudging or otherwise.

According to a NZ Herald writer, John McEnroe’s “regular outbursts made him a star”. Actually, the regular outbursts earned him regular fines and suspensions; his sublime talent made him a star. The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins claimed “there was absolutely nothing worthy of penalising” in Williams calling Ramos “a thief”. That seems to be setting the bar dismally and dangerously low.

After the game, Williams told the media, “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff.” That “all kinds of stuff” is either a hubris alert or a dawning awareness that, as TS Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality … Falls the shadow.”

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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