Wednesday 18 September 2019

Defiant to the last

As Serena Williams returns to Flushing Meadows for the first time since her row with umpire Carlos Ramos, Simon Briggs looks at why controversy finds her so often in New York and what has happened since

Serena Williams. Photo: Getty
Serena Williams. Photo: Getty

Simon Briggs

A quick recap. On September 8, 2018, Serena Williams was beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Naomi Osaka in the US Open final in a match that was defined by her three code-violation penalties: the first for coaching, the second for racket abuse and the third for verbal abuse.

After a deeply uncomfortable presentation ceremony at which Osaka was booed by a partisan crowd, Williams came into the interview room and claimed that chair umpire Carlos Ramos had discriminated against her because of her gender.

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"I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality," said Williams. "For me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark."

Even before this claim, we had been dealing with one of the great sporting showpieces gone wrong. Williams' press conference added identity politics to the stew, and created the biggest sports story of 2018. Ask any news outlet that counts eyeballs: the US Open final trounced the football World Cup.

In more than two decades on the tour, Williams has been involved in only a handful of umpiring controversies. The big ones have all come on the same court: Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The saga began in 2004, when Portuguese umpire Mariana Alves gave a performance of alarming inaccuracy. Four bad decisions went against Williams in the third set of her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 quarter-final loss to Jennifer Capriati. In the worst one, Alves overruled a backhand winner that bounced several inches inside the line.

Williams bore her misfortune with grace, telling reporters that the umpiring errors were not the reason she lost. But one suspects that the injustice was not so easy to digest. It probably played a part in her hostile reactions here in 2009 - when the baseline judge called a dubious foot fault against her - and in 2011, when chair umpire Eva Asderaki took a point away because her loud scream of "come on" had been made while the ball was still in play.

In the first of those two incidents, Williams threatened to "take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat". In the second, she told Asderaki: "You're a hater and you're unattractive inside." Both matches, against Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur respectively, were lost.

For all the flashpoints, the US Open has still been Williams' most consistent grand slam. In 19 appearances, she has only once failed to reach the second week - and that was on her first outing at the age of 16.

"In New York, the fans have always been so supportive," Williams wrote in her 2010 autobiography Queen of the Court. "I feel a certain responsibility to give them a memorable effort, to get them on their feet."

Along with the psychological scar tissue building up from each successive incident, these expectations have surely made her more volatile when playing at her home grand slam.

Twelve months on, the battle lines still follow cultural, racial and gender divides. Because chair umpires are less than consistent in their application of the rules, the debate becomes so subjective that you can read into it any way you want.

For example, broadcaster Pam Shriver argues that, because it was a showpiece event, Ramos should have offered more soft warnings. Whereas former umpire Norm Chryst argues that, because it was a showpiece event, Ramos had to go in hard.

This summer Williams penned a first-person column in Harper's Bazaar in which she concluded that "it's shameful that our society penalises women just for being themselves".

Is there real evidence of gender bias at play here? The picture is complicated. While some research suggests greater sensitivity when women are on court, the raw data shows men received 86 code violations at last year's US Open, women 22.

One thing is undeniable: Williams' travails at the US Open have changed tennis. After the Alves match, tournament organisers pushed so hard for video reviews that Hawk-Eye was unveiled at the 2006 edition. This year, they are bringing in new scoreboard signals - and making officials available to broadcasters - to help fans understand code violations in real time. They are also telling umpires to offer a soft warning before making a "coaching" call.

And how has the narrative changed Williams herself? If anything, she seems to have hardened her position over the past year. Rather like Sharapova after the meldonium ban of 2017, Williams has doubled down by attacking her perceived persecutors. "Why is it that when women get passionate," she wrote in Harper's Bazaar, "they're labelled emotional, crazy, and irrational, but when men do they're seen as passionate and strong?"

This rigidity does feel disappointing. Yes, Williams has had to put up with repeated injustices. As she told officials in the heat of last year's drama: "This has happened to me too many times." Still, any querying of Ramos' hard-line interpretations should also acknowledge that - on a technical level, at least - he was going by the book.

If Williams could admit that she was at least partly responsible for the fiasco, many people would find that a hugely relatable step. But great champions are different from the general population. They have a messianic quality which means they do not back down, and they rarely change their minds. Without it, she would not be the game-changer that she is.

Telegraph.co.uk

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