U.S. Open controversy sparks debate on sexism

Serena Williams is no stranger to controversy at the U.S. Open. In her 2009 semi-finals match against Kim Clijsters, Williams was called for a foot fault on her second serve, gifting Clijsters double match point. Rattled and under pressure, she launched an expletive-filled threat at the lineswoman. Having already received a conduct warning for throwing her racket earlier in the match, her tirade resulted to a one-point penalty, handing victory to Clijsters.

Two years later, Williams was facing break point against Sam Stosur in the finals, when she ripped what appeared to be a forehand winner. “Come on!” she shouted in excitement. But when Stosur managed to tip the ball off her racket’s frame, Williams’ exclamation led the chair umpire to enact the hindrance rule, which states that if a player deliberately hinders the opponent’s ability to play the point, the opponent wins the point. Stosur was awarded the point and thus the game, prompting a verbal onslaught from Williams towards the chair umpire.

This year, on Sept. 8, Williams and U.S. Open officials clashed for a third time during her finals match against Naomi Osaka. After losing the first set 6-2, Williams was up 1-0 in the second set when chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued her a warning for receiving coaching. Williams insisted to Ramos that she had not been cheating, and play continued. After being broken to make the score 3-2, she smashed her racket in frustration, bringing on her second violation and causing Osaka to start the next game 15-0.

Williams called Ramos a thief and demanded an apology. “You stole a point from me,” she declared. After losing two more games — Osaka now leading 4-3 — Williams turned her attention back to Ramos. “You are a liar. You will never be on a court of mine as long as you live. When are you going to give me my apology? Say you are sorry,” she insisted, leading him to issue another code violation for abuse. A third violation meant Osaka was given an entire game, pushing her lead to 5-3. She won the following game, winning the match and her first Grand Slam title.

During her argument with Ramos and other referees, Williams mentioned that she had heard men say a lot worse and not be penalized, causing an uproar concerning sexism in tennis officiating. Legend Billie Jean King tweeted, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it.” King continued: “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions.” Several male players voiced their support, acknowledging that they have instead received “soft warnings” for verbal attacks — being told that they are pushing the limits and any more arguing will incur a penalty.

Ramos is known for being a strict but fair umpire, who adheres closely to the rules and treats players equally regardless of their ranking. However, Ramos certainly could have taken the “soft warning” approach — something he did utilize when Novak Djokovic complained about a unsportsmanlike conduct warning earlier this year at Wimbledon. Williams, however, also clearly lost her cool and pushed the issue over the course of multiple games, allowing the infractions to get to her head and effect her concentration on the court.

Unfortunately, the Williams-Ramos confrontation overshadowed Osaka’s brilliant play. The 20-year-old dominated the first set and played exceptionally well in the second set, even without the game penalty factored in. She had been gaining momentum, winning two straight games and taking a 4-3 lead. Osaka, whose mother is Japanese, has lived in the United States since she was three, but competes for the Japanese Tennis Association. With her triumph at the U.S. Open, Osaka became the first Japanese player to ever win a Grand Slam title.

Drowned out by the drama of the women’s finals was the significance of Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the men’s finals match the following night. Djokovic is now tied with Pete Sampras for third on the career Grand Slam wins list, with 14. He is only three behind Rafael Nadal and six back from Roger Federer. With his success this summer at Wimbledon and now the U.S. Open, the conversation has now turned to his legacy and his place among the greats. Djokovic is now potentially on track to surpass Federer as the greatest player of all time. Declaring Federer as the GOAT is an easy case to make, but he is nearing the end of his career. Nadal, on the other hand, needs to win several non-clay Slams to make the claim that he was better than Federer. Additionally, Nadal is more injury-prone than Djokovic, especially during the hard court season when his knees take a beating.

But if Djokovic keeps up his recent form, it is not hard to see him adding several slams to his trophy collection over the next few years. He has shown that he is a tenacious fighter: a 22-point duel with del Potro while down 4-3 in the second set put his grit to the test, and he won the game, keeping the set on-serve. Even if he cannot surpass Federer in total Slam wins, other factors — at the moment, Djokovic leads Federer in head-to-head competition — suggest he is right up there with the Swiss legend. His career’s two most dominant stretches are on par with Federer’s best stints and came against top caliber players like Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray, while many of Federer’s Slams wins came against competitors outside the “Big Four.” Federer is still at it, and has the chance to tack on one or two more Slams before his time comes to a close but Djokovic’s ability to return to his former level of play will make this a truly compelling race.