Sunday 24 March 2019

Comment: Furore around 'rule-breaking Serena' fails to consider journey she has been through

 

Serena Williams shouts at umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open women’s final against Naomi Osaka. Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY SPORTS
Serena Williams shouts at umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open women’s final against Naomi Osaka. Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY SPORTS

Jonathan Liew

Was it wrong to be entertained? "You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live."

Perhaps even… a little thrilled? "You are the liar. You owe me an apology."

To feel all of the following competing sensations: solidarity with the bold and brilliant Naomi Osaka as she stood on the cusp of her first Grand Slam title; sympathy with umpire Carlos Ramos as he cowered in the eye of the storm; compassion for Serena Williams as her dreams of a marvellous homecoming evaporated before her eyes; and affinity with the Flushing Meadows crowd in New York as a wonderful final turned sour. "You're a thief, too. You stole a point from me."

And yet also the strange and spiralling frisson that wriggles through your guts when you experience a moment so dramatic and transgressive that you know you will never forget it?

Perhaps. But at the same time, perhaps the only way to approach the extraordinary conclusion to the 2018 US Open final is to acknowledge the conflicting emotions it generated: the intense and orchestral confusion of watching something awful and spellbinding and ugly and cathartic all at once. How dare anyone treat Serena that way? How dare she react like that? You tell them, Serena. Please stop.

Not everyone, of course, feels quite as plurally.

There was plenty of anger being thrown in the aftermath of the final, from those who felt Serena had behaved with abominable spite, from those who felt she had been presumptuously victimised by an attention-seeking official. And it seems to me that the fundamental divide here is between those for whom this is no more than a simple issue of rule enforcement, and those for whom this is part of something much larger: of who gets to make the rules and who has to live with them, of wider injustices that originated long before Serena ever picked up a racquet, and will endure long after she has put it down for the last time.

If this is just about rules, then your argument is fairly straightforward. No coaching from the player's box: code violation, warning. No smashing of racquets: code violation, point penalty. No abuse of officials, which under Grand Slam regulations includes questioning their integrity: code violation, game penalty. Case closed. Everyone calm down. What's in the fridge?

This touching faith in the letter of the law and the sanctity of the rules has always struck me as faintly suspicious. After all, rules don't just appear, and they're never as objective as they look. They reflect the values and the priorities of the humans who create them, and the society from which they emanated. And a good deal of the criticism of Serena stems from the sense that she has in some way violated some sacrosanct behavioural code: that she failed to show decorum, good manners, or that sinisterly loaded word, "class".

We don't all see the world in the same way. We're all the product of our journey and our life experiences. So let's walk this back a little. With the caveat that to empathise is not to condone, and to explain is not to excuse, let's try to see this whole episode from Serena's perspective.

Serena is five or six years old, hitting balls with her sister Venus at her local court in Lynwood Park, when some kids turn up and start taunting them, calling them "Blackie One" and "Blackie Two". Serena is eight, arriving at tournaments in LA with her entire family, wondering why people are craning their necks to stare at them. Serena is 19, stepping out in the final of Indian Wells to a chorus of boos from a white, affluent crowd, the n-word stinging in her ears. Serena is 22, playing Jennifer Capriati at the US Open, watching in disbelief as balls landing a foot outside the lines are being called good by an inscrutable Portuguese umpire.

Serena is 25, standing in the doorway of a slave castle in Senegal, staring out over the ocean and thinking about the journey her ancestors would have taken centuries ago. Serena is 30, being interviewed by Piers Morgan, and being told her victory dance makes her look like "a gangster". Serena is 35, in the car with her teenage nephew, seeing a police car at the side of the road and feeling a sudden pang of terror in the pit of her stomach.

No, this wasn't just about a code violation. Rules derive, essentially, from a system, an implicit covenant that all shall be treated equally, and all shall have the same opportunities. But what happens when the covenant is broken? What happens when the system doesn't work for you? Perhaps then, your norms diverge from mine. Perhaps neither of us has the monopoly on morality. Many find the instinctive veneration of Serena in certain quarters a little cloying, perhaps even disturbing. But the point isn't that Serena is always right, or that she makes up her own virtue as she goes along. The point is that when you have been wronged a thousand times over, it's hard to credit the notion that "right" exists at all.

And now Serena is 36, a walking time capsule of all the big and little injustices that have pockmarked her life, listening to an umpire warning her for receiving a coaching instruction she didn't even see. I don't know what's going through her mind at that moment, but it's a fair bet she's not trying to recall the precise wording of Article 3, Clause L of the 2018 Grand Slam rule book. She's not trying to keep her composure or avoid causing a scene. She's thinking: these guys are screwing me again. She's thinking: I'm Serena Williams, this is my journey, and now this fraction of a man is trying to throw obstacles in my path.

Of course, she probably should have kept her composure. If nothing else, it would have given her the best chance of getting back into the match. And of course, none of this is really the fault of Ramos, a man who we have to assume was simply trying to do his job under the utmost pressure. Sometimes we get a little hung up on blame. Perhaps, instead, we're all just playing the hand we've been dealt. What happened on Saturday night was, in many ways, utterly unavoidable, the natural consequence of trying to wrestle with the legacy of four centuries of US history during the second set of a major tennis final.

The following things can all be true at once. Serena Williams is an American hero. Serena Williams has one heck of a temper. Serena Williams broke the rules. Serena Williams grew out of one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the US to become one of the most decorated sporting personalities of all time, overcoming egregious prejudice at every stage of her career and cheating death at least twice, and you don't really do that unless you have a healthy disregard for the rules.

The problem comes when we expect great athletes to remain within boundaries they have spent their lives breaching. The lie is that you can treat Serena as if she were anybody else, when all the available evidence suggests otherwise. The hypocrisy is in demanding that humans abide by values they had no part in defining and often work actively against them. The incongruity arises when you expect a force of nature to behave like a man-made object. After all, the same river that irrigates our fields also floods our houses. (© Independent News Service)

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