I don’t really follow tennis, but I follow Serena Williams. She deserves better than what happened yesterday. In case you missed it, an umpire decided to put one of the most celebrated and elite athletes in her place because she dared question his authority after he made a series of arbitrary calls that docked her points. She called him a thief for doing so, so he decided to dock her an entire game, all but handing her opponent Naomi Osaka the championship.
No, Serena did not have a “meltdown” as so many publications and online sources gleefully called it. She had an extremely relatable reaction to a situation that undoubtedly she’s faced since she started her career—the system is rigged. She knows it. They know it. Everyone knows it. You can know it, and still get frustrated when you keep crossing invisible lines of what’s allowed, which are ever-changing and mercurially applied. That’s not a meltdown. That’s being human.
She competes in a sport that has arbitrary rules with fickle enforcement, and an extreme lack of diversity at the elite level. Of the top 100 women in the sport, only 16 are non-white. For men, that number is 21. You don’t need me to pull trusted sources to tell you that the population of the world is not 84% white women, and 79% white men. Clearly, there’s a representation issue in Tennis. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The first infraction she was docked for receiving coaching (as she was playing) from her Coach…who was not on the court. As I said, I don’t follow tennis, but it seems like a completely asinine rule that a player could be docked for someone else’s actions over which they have no control. If someone could please explain that, in a way that doesn’t fall back on “well, those are the rules and she knew it” I’m all ears.
Serena addressed the matter head-on with the Umpire, telling him “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
"I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose."— espnW (@espnW) September 8, 2018
—Serena to the chair umpire after receiving a coaching violation pic.twitter.com/v6Q2GWYYOn
The tournament continued, and after Serena lost the fifth game of the second set, she smashed her racket in frustration. Guess what? There’s an arbitrary rule for that, too! You better believe the Umpire took his opportunity to dock her for it, which gave Osaka an automatic 15-0 lead before the next game even started.
"You owe me an apology!"— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2018
Serena was fired up with the official in the final set of the US Open final. pic.twitter.com/r6RSbrirnV
Serena, being top of her profession, forgot for a moment she was a woman (of color, no less), and approached the Umpire as an equal. She thought she had addressed the first infraction, and he had rescinded it. (He hadn’t.) She demanded an apology because she felt he was calling her a cheater. (He refused.) So she walked away, and as she did, she called him a “thief.” That was all he needed, and he docked her for verbal abuse, her third infraction, which cost her an entire game and gave her competitor the lead. Serena would ultimately lose the tournament.
Serena, ever a champion, addressed what happened in the press conference. (Hint: it was sexism!)
"I've seen other men call other umpires several things. And I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality." pic.twitter.com/QzFTixejel— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2018
She tackled the sexism head on and didn’t shy away from calling out the instances against her, and in the US Open in general.
Here’s the heartbreaking part of it all: Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam titles in her career and had she won last night, it would be a record-breaking 24. She came back from life-threatening complications from her pregnancy to retain her elite status a year after giving birth. She’s doing everything right, and still, the people in authority chip away at her. They strip her of her international rankings because she dared have a child. They ban her body suit (you know, the one that was designed to keep her safe because she had blot clots after her pregnancy?) because they find it a slight against the sport. After a disappointing loss, she tosses her racket in frustration, and she gets a point docked.
Those are just the things we witness. Imagine all of the little indignities she’s had to suffer (again, as an elite athlete who is the most decorated woman currently competing in her entire sport) that we haven’t seen.
Serena was able to address the sexism component, because 1) it was fairly obvious, and 2) it’s easier to stomach. She didn’t address the racial component that has plagued her entire career, because it’s far more insidious, and nothing revokes sympathy more than when a person of color points out the institutional racism that underlies our entire society. Hey, we even have a term for it, “pulling the race card.” How’s that for shades of f*cked up?
I’ve struggled to find a way to appropriately illustrate this point, and the best I can come up with is if Serena Williams were a white woman, and she handled herself in the exact same manner yesterday, the narrative in the media would be completely different. There would be no mention of a “meltdown” because when a white woman cries or becomes emotional (as Serena did in her press conference), society takes notice. Everyone cares about what happened to make the white woman cry, and they want to fix it for her. Serena has received a much more muted response that has ranged from putting the blame on her to agreeing with her sexism claims. There has been little to no mention of race, which should illustrate exactly how eager we are to ignore it.
If you take a stroll onto articles about this (which I’ll be damned if I link to here) you’ll see a lot of hot takes (primarily from white guys) who say Serena was out of line, and that she broke the rules and had to face the consequences of her actions. Again, the rules that are arbitrarily enforced, and have nothing to do with how she’s actually playing the game.
Yesterday sucked. Serena Williams deserved better. She deserved to lose the championship based upon her performance while playing, and not on her “decorum” while she wasn’t. Conversely, Naomi Osaka deserved a clean win, not one with the Umpire’s thumb on the scales. That man took both from women who worked hard to get to where they were, all because he took it upon himself to police Serena Williams’ behavior. The fact he thought he had the right to do so, and the governing body behind the tournament upheld his authority to do so demonstrates the system in which Serena has been forced to operate (and still manages to win in.)
The system is rigged, and yet Serena Williams is still one of the most decorated athletes of all time. Let that sink in for a minute. Despite all of the arbitrary rules that pop up against her, she still manages to win. Now, imagine for a minute, how much more she would achieve if those same rules didn’t keep popping up out of nowhere. That’s the maddening part of it all. Serena Williams is great in spite of this. Think of what’s lost because of it.
Header Image Source: Getty