Serena Williams Penalized For Showing Rage At U.S. Open. Serena Williams was accused of violating at Saturday night’s U.S. Open final. Those rules were written for a game and for players who were not supposed to look or express themselves or play the game as beautifully and passionately as either Serena Williams or the young woman who eventually beat her, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, do. They are rules written for a sport that, until Williams and her sister came along, was dominated by white players, a sport in which white men have violated those rules in frequently spectacular fashion and rarely faced the kind of repercussions that Williams — and Osaka — did on Saturday night.
Chair umpire Carlos Ramos first issued Williams a warning for purportedly having gotten “coaching,” via a hand signal from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the stands. This was a mystifying call, so common are coaches’ hand gestures to their players, so unlikely was it that Williams had seen the gesture from across the court, or that it would have had any impact on her game. It was a call that felt designed to provoke and diminish perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, during a year in which she has made a return to the sport after having had a baby, come close to dying after a postpartum hematoma, and lost her No. 1 seed as a result of her absence from the game.
Ramos’s censure of Williams on Saturday night cannot be disentangled from her gender and race any more than the other recent obstacles she’s faced, from the physical toll of pregnancy, to her profession’s status-tax on it, to her higher risk of maternal mortality and postpartum complication. Because in making the coaching call, in the midst of a match she was playing against a newcomer who looked likely to beat her fair and square, the umpire insinuated that Serena was herself not playing fair and square. That made her livid. And one thing black women are never allowed to be without consequence is livid.
Of course she was mad! She was enraged by being called a cheater, furious at the suggestion that her stature, in this sport that has made her feel so unwelcome even as she has dominated and redefined it, has in any way been anything other than earned. And so, breathless with rage, she said, “I don’t cheat to win; I’d rather lose.” Over and over, she repeated, sometimes pointing her finger at him, “You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology.”
It was her anger that wound up costing her materially in the game: After Williams broke her racket in frustration after losing a serve, which without the first coaching violation would have merited a warning, Ramos docked her a point; in response, still furious primarily at the suggestion that she had cheated, she called him a “thief.” For this comparatively mild epithet he penalized her by taking away a full game.
So during a naturally supercharged Grand Slam final between veteran superstar and the young woman trying to unseat her, a male umpire prodded Serena Williams to anger and then punished her for expressing it. In doing so, he took from her not just the point, not just the game, but ultimately the tournament, even if — and this seems likely — she would have lost it anyway. She was punished for showing emotion, for defiance, for being the player she has always been — driven, passionate, proud, and fully human.
Fully human just like Jimmy Connors, whose famous late-career drive to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991 included him screaming at the chair umpire, “You’re a bum! I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old” and later calling him — perplexingly — “an abortion.” Connors’s contemporary, John McEnroe, famously shattered a thousand rackets and uttered a thousand expletives at umpires. His anger was his calling card, a trademark. In 2008, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote in the New York Times about that famous temper, “For a lot of younger people, especially, the McEnroe out there raging and smashing rackets could express all the displeasure at bad things in the world that they were too inhibited to disclose.”
Serena’s rage is also an expression of displeasure at the bad things in the world, her wrath channeling far broader impulses to defy those rules designed and enforced by, yet so rarely forcefully applied to, white men. As she said at the press conference after the game, “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality … For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game? … It was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said thief. For me, it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women.”
But it’s not simply that those who are angry at the kinds of things Serena Williams is angry about are “too inhibited” to disclose their fury. It’s also that they are told all the time — like when they watch a tennis final — that if they do permit themselves to rage, even if that rage pales in comparison to the rage of their male peers, their white predecessors, that they will face reprimand. Women are made to understand, all the time, how their reasonable expression of vexation might cost them the game. Women’s challenge to male authority, and especially black women’s challenge to authority, is automatically understood as a threat, a form of defiance that must be quashed.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment on Saturday night was watching Serena Williams work to clean up the mess. After losing to Osaka — 16 years her junior, Haitian-Japanese, looking traumatized at having beaten her childhood idol to win her first Grand Slam in such a perverted fashion — Williams stood beside her as the stadium erupted in boos. Williams spoke to the crowd, asked them to stop booing. “I just want to tell you guys she played well and this is her first Grand Slam. Let’s not boo anymore. We will get through this. No more booing. Congratulations, Naomi.” Williams was working to ensure that young Osaka was getting what some in tennis have had such a hard time offering her: respect, pure admiration, and the acknowledgment that her remarkable achievement was earned and legitimate. Both women were crying.