It’s a sadly familiar feeling to leave a US Open with mixed feelings about Serena Williams. There’s no dispute about her achievements, the records that leave her, alone as the GOAT, and the skills that will make her a contender in any match she plays as long as she decides to stay in tennis. But the fire that has driven her so far can lead her astray — with angry outbursts that occur at inopportune times, and, all too frequently at key moments in US Open finals.
Serena Williams wasn’t perfect today. Her serve was far from its best, with too many double faults early on. Her strategy to stay back and hit from the baseline with Naomi Osaka was not well conceived. And she was just plain tight. But that’s not why Serena will be critiqued in the coming days. Instead, Serena is now facing scrutiny for her reactions to the umpiring decisions made by chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the course of the two set final. Starting early in the second set, when Ramos gave Williams a warning for a coaching violation in the middle of an Osaka service game, Williams was unsettled by the implication that she was participating in improper behavior, telling Ramos, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose.”
After a lengthy, but cordial, discussion on the changeover, it seemed that both sides had reached an understanding about the violation, but then Serena smashed her racquet in frustration over a missed shot, and Ramos quickly assessed a point violation. Serena appeared not to realize that the coaching violation had only not been withdrawn, but that it counted as a strike against her, such that the racquet abuse penalty was loss of a point. Not surprisingly, Serena was outraged at this outcome, and continued to argue her case with Ramos, castigating him vehemently for the coaching violation call and arguing that she was not guilty of cheating. Ramos’ response was to assess her a game penalty, which at 4-3 in the second set, effectively shut the last few millimeters of the door that Naomi Osaka had already closed with her strong, confident play.
Few would say that Serena would have definitely won the match with a different set of umpiring decisions. She was already behind the 8-ball, so to speak, having just given up her lead in the second set, and looking vulnerable from the baseline. And, look, anyone who watched Serena’s argument with the chair umpire would be hard pressed to say that she handled it perfectly.
But you don’t have to be perfect to be right.
Umpiring, like many professional pursuits, only starts with knowledge. The most important part of the job is having good judgment — knowing how to enforce the rules while not intruding into the flow and the outcome of the match. It’s in the exercise of this soft power that an umpire can affect the outcome of a match for better or worse. There are times where the players make it impossible — for example, Serena’s threat to lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi in the 2009 US Open final was deserving of the penalty it got, which cost Serena the match, or Fabio Fognini’s ejection from the US Open in 2017. But much of the umpiring job is knowing when to enforce the rules tightly, and when to give the players some space to vent, and, most importantly, the benefit of the doubt.
There are rules in tennis that are enforced tightly — like the double bounce, and there are others that are, shall we say, lightly enforced. Coaching is firmly in the second group. Watch any tennis match, and you will see coaching from just about every coach in the game except, perhaps, Ivan Lendl, who could be mistaken for a statue while sitting in the coaches’ box. Even if the coaches aren’t telling players where to serve, or when to volley, a good number of them do advise on when to challenge, so much so that it often makes the TV commentary. But Serena has never shown any proclivity towards seeking or listening to coaching advice, even when it is permitted, anytime in her career. It’s hard to imagine a coaching violation call being made against Roger Federer — who has a similar history of being coaching-averse, or Rafa Nadal, who does not. Federer and Nadal would be given the benefit of the doubt — which Serena has rarely ever gotten, and certainly did not get tonight. It’s an odd call to make in a big moment, and one that understandably put Serena on the defensive, when she has no history of behavior that would warrant such a call.
That isn’t to say that coaching may not be a behavior that the tours want to curtail. It’s hard to say, since the WTA tour events regularly milk coaching time outs for drama, after all. But if it is an issue, then it should be called consistently, and monitored regularly. There is precedent for this — after all, one common complaint, especially in ATP matches, was the long time certain players, including Nadal, were taking between points. Attempts to call time violations were met with ire, so the US Open Series came up with an actual solution — the time clock. It’s not perfect, and it shouldn’t have been implemented without player input, but it largely removes discretion from the call, and has led to both better enforcement and less controversy.
There’s an argument that goes along the lines of, “well, Serena should have to follow the rules like everyone else, she shouldn’t expect special treatment.” That’s an odd thing to say, when you consider Serena’s history at the US Open. It was likely her match against Jennifer Capriati in 2004 that singlehandedly caused the player review system to be implemented. It was in that match that Serena was on the losing end of a number of egregiously bad line calls, which the chair umpire failed to overrule. And while Serena’s reaction in 2009 warranted the penalty she received, let’s not forget that the call that provoked her was a foot fault, a rarely issued call, and one which she had almost never gotten in the past. And in 2011, she was called for a hindrance for saying “come on” — which, in light of the equally hindering grunting on both tours during play, was, at best, a very unusual call.
It’s not hard to see why Serena believes that New York is a cursed place for her. As Joseph Heller said, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” That isn’t to say that this vast conspiracy of officials has set out to thwart Serena’s success. But discrimination happens in the moments in between. It’s in the times where major press outlets refer to the angry argument of a grown woman as a childish tantrum. By contrast, Federer has argued with umpires, but no one has referred to those arguments as a tantrum, unless they were talking about Federer’s actual childhood. Similarly, Djokovic has been known to shout and rip his shirts in anger, but he has not been called for clothing abuse or verbal abuse. Maybe their anger is more comfortable for those who officiate, or at least less threatening. It certainly is less penalized.
There was a place for discretion tonight, and it’s hard to think of other pivotal matches where an umpire was so quick to pull the trigger. There’s plenty of precedent of players venting on the changeover, whether it’s Federer’s salty outburst in 2009 or Nadal’s locking horns with his nemesis Carlos Bernardes, or a countless other number of angry rants that regularly make highlight reels but not the penalty lists. While Mohammed Layani perhaps went overboard in counseling Nick Kyrgios this fortnight in New York, the empathy he showed isn’t misplaced in the umpire’s chair — while Ramos certainly didn’t need to help Serena, he could and should have tried to defuse the situation, for the good of the match, for Osaka, and for the spectators. A soft warning, or just refusal to engage with Serena would have sufficed, but instead he took the serious step of assessing a game penalty. Yet, when it comes to Serena, this restraint, this desire to defuse rather than ignite is absent far too often.
There’s no easy solution here, though there are always little fixes that could help. Perhaps some conduct, like coaching, should be fine-able but not part of the code violation progression. Perhaps some chair umpire decisions, such as assessing a game penalty, should be subject to a second opinion from the tournament referee before it is implemented. Some of these changes would curtail some of the discretion that proved so problematic tonight. But, ultimately, the real challenge will be in the spaces in between the rules — hopefully tonight’s match will make future umpires think twice, but it will likely be a long road to change.