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IMHO: Double Standards Exist in Tennis, but Serena Was Still Wrong

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, file photo, Serena Williams argues with the chair umpire during a match against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during the women's finals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in New York. Some black women say Serena Williams’ experience at the U.S. Open final resonates with them. They say they are often forced to watch their tone and words in the workplace in ways that men and other women are not. Otherwise, they say, they risk being branded an "Angry Black Woman." (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP, File)



Valley News Sports Editor
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Billie Jean King is right. There needs to be a discussion — or better, action — regarding how men and women are treated differently in sports.

Still, Serena Williams was out of line.

There is most certainly a double standard in tennis when it comes to behavior. Williams drew three code violations for her actions in Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s final, with the last one costing her a game at a key moment of her match with Naomi Osaka. Name a time when that happened to a man.

Still, she was way out of line.

Even acknowledging that race, gender, history and the moment all provide context to the tantrum Williams threw on Saturday, the essential point about her behavior is that she slandered a referee. Why are so many folks, including a lot of my journalistic colleagues, missing that point?

I’ve officiated sports — albeit at the youth and high school level — for decades. I can promise you one thing: If you had the gall to call me a “thief” for a judgment that didn’t suit your game plan, you can bet your bottom dollar you would find yourself on the bench right then and there.

Williams — whom I consider the most accomplished female athlete ever and who impresses me with each accumulated athletic feat — may have had a questionable history with the U.S. Open in the past, but that was irrelevant to what transpired on Saturday. Umpire Carlos Ramos had one job to do: Enforce the rules. He did, and Serena lost it.

Rule: You can’t receive coaching in the midst of a tennis match. Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, admitted on television he tried to do just that. Ramos caught it, Williams drew a warning — and fumed.

Rule: Smashing your racket isn’t permitted. Williams did after losing a game, drawing a point penalty for her second violation of the night — and fumed some more.

Rule: Berating the umpire is a no-no. Williams crossed a line with her “thief” remark and received the appropriate penalty.

In soccer, that behavior would be a red-card offense. In hockey, it would be a misconduct penalty, minimum, and possibly more. There’s a large part of the sporting public that can’t seem to wrap its head around this point.

Martina Navratilova can. The retired tennis champion, who certainly had a temper at times in her competitive days, opined in The New York Times this week that applying a standard of, “If men can do it, women should be able to as well,” is off the mark. “I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?” she wrote.

Even King, who penned a guest column in The Washington Post the day after Williams’ tirade, hit one nail on the head. “If tennis would catch up with the 21st century and allow coaching on every point, the situation on the court would never have escalated to the level of absurdity that it did,” she noted.

She’s right. But it still doesn’t excuse Williams’ final reaction.

Look, I get it. I’m no tennis guru, but I’m old enough to remember John McEnroe’s petulant whining, Ilie Nastase’s volcanic temper, Jimmy Connors’ occasional displays of childishness. Yes, men have gotten away with such behavior in tennis for years, and while it may have seemed acceptable at the time, times change. It’s a dark stain on a wonderful game.

I’m glad we’re starting to have a discussion on the clearly different standards applied to male and female athletes. Hopefully, this will lead to action; in this one case, tennis can do a better job of educating players and coaches on how they are to act in the context of a match and what the consequences will be when they fail.

But I’m also happy that there are least a few people — not as many as I’d like — who realize what really happened on Saturday. Serena Williams slandered a tennis referee and got called for it.

History had nothing to do with it. Bad behavior did.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.