Thoughts on The US OPEN TENNIS FINAL, September 8, 2018
To many spectators both at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center and watching on television, the US Open Women’s Final Match of 2018 was a great disappointment.
The match should have been historic — the first Japanese-Haitian, 20 year old challenger in her first Grand Slam final, and more importantly, her brilliant play against an opponent widely described as the best-ever women’s tennis champion (who had won her first Grand Slam tournament before her younger opponent’s second birthday) attempting, in the year after her daughter’s birth, to equal the record for most US Open victories by a female.
Young Naomi Osaka handily won the first set (6-2) against Serena Williams, amazingly back in this final 18 days short of her 37th birthday,. What happened in the second set, however, became historic for unexpected and regrettable reasons.
The hitherto “distinguished chair umpire,” George Ramos, made questionable choices that interfered with scoring in the match, and threw shade over Osaka’s victory in the minds of Williams’ fanatics. Why the United States Tennis Association chose a male umpire to officiate in this match is a mystery to me. The more significant mystery, however, is why he chose, in a final match, to rule against “coaching from the stands,” which, by the rules of the USTA, is “illegal” but apparently indulged by nearly every player and his/her team and almost never called. This issue has long been debated in the professional tennis community as you can see for yourself with a simple Google check. This online article is very informative: Wimbledon 2015 – Novak Djokovic: yes, I communicate with Boris Becker, but you can’t call it cheating | The Independent
[“In the last five years [2011-2015] 24 fines have been issued to male players at Grand Slam events for on-court coaching. Djokovic has been fined twice – at the 2011 Australian Open and 2013 US Open…
Rafael Nadal has also been fined twice for coaching over the same period. The Spaniard received the biggest coaching fine to be issued since 2010 when he was penalized $4,000 at last year’s Australian Open. Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet are among those who have also fallen foul of the rules.”]
When it was over, Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, admitted coaching with a hand gesture. During the match, commentator and former great women’s champion Chris Evert had noted that his action coincided with an adjustment in court position by Serena that helped her game. Evert also mentioned, after the chair umpire ruled that the signal was a “code violation,” that this penalty is rarely called.
Williams chose to perceive the call as an attack on her honour, protesting that she’s “not a cheater” and that she’d “rather lose than cheat.” It appeared to viewers that while the umpire understood her feeling, he was not about to reverse his decision. He did not, as he could/should have, warn her that a continuing outburst would cost her a game. Perhaps she might have calmed down if he had. Regardless, rather than put the incident behind her, it seemed to me that Williams, fuming, preferred to play the victim. Osaka, meanwhile, undaunted by trailing 3-1 in the second set, battled back brilliantly, and aided by double faults from Williams, broke serve and strove to catch up. She won the fifth game.
At this point, I’ll pick up the narrative from ESPN:
“Then, during the changeover at 3-2, the fireworks began. After Osaka broke her in the fifth, Williams smashed her racket and was penalized a point for a second code violation. Before the start of the next game, Williams walked to the chair to plead with Ramos again to tell the crowd she [had not been cheating at the time she was charged with the first code violation].
“I didn’t get coaching. You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching,” Williams said. “I didn’t cheat. How can you say that? I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right for her. You owe me an apology.”
At that moment, the boos — which had started after the initial warning — became so deafening they delayed play. On every serve. After a few points, Ramos stopped his attempts to settle the crowd. Through it all, Osaka impressively held her focus and won the next two games. At 4-3, she was two games from the title.
But Williams couldn’t let that earlier warning go. Again, she walked to the chair and exchanged words with Ramos. “You stole a point from me,” she said. “You’re a thief.” Before fans knew what was happening, Ramos called both players to the chair and docked Williams a game penalty for verbal abuse: 5-3 Osaka.
Had Williams let it go — or had Ramos let the match play out — maybe Williams could have forced a third set. The way Osaka was playing, it’s unlikely, but Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champ for a reason. She knows how to find that next gear. “It’s hard to say, because I always fight ’til the end, and I always try to come back, no matter what,” Williams said after the match. “But [Osaka] was also playing really, really well. She played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it was.”
So what’s my takeaway from this? I agree that the umpire badly miscalculated in his decision to penalize what he perceived as coaching. Although Williams’ coach acknowledged, at the end of the match, that he had been trying to coach his player with a hand gesture, he used the old “everybody does it” excuse.
I’m even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this point. In fact, I think tennis must get rid of the “no coaching” rule that is so difficult to enforce and so blatantly ignored by the top teams in the sport. Tennis purists, who argue that the players should, like gladiators, play their own game with no outside input, are sleep walking. Coaching is allowed, for goodness’ sake, in the qualifying rounds at the US Open.
I can see that tennis fans don’t really want the kind of spectator “cheering” that’s common at baseball and football and soccer and hockey and rugby games (think Boston or New York!). Tennis is better enjoyed by watchers being able to hear the smack of the racket against the ball, or the ringing of the bell on serves that touch the net. Whether we need to hear the grunts of players is a topic for debate in another time and place. I don’t think we want to hear coaches calling out instructions to the players. I’m sure the players don’t either. But players do look to their coaches between serves either to plead excuses for mistakes or to read silent signals that will help them improve. Allow coaching!
Second, I applaud Serena for trying at the end of the match not to deprive Naomi of enjoying her historic moment. Although I doubt she’d ever admit it, I think Serena knew deep down that she was being defeated on this day by the better player. Could she have come back? Maybe. After the third violation, Serena won the next game easily (did Osaka let up for that game?) to bring the score to 5–4 with Osaka serving. Osaka’s game winning point, however, was a near ace that Williams just couldn’t handle. At the presentation, Serena did what she couldn’t do during the match — rise above her emotions and put sportspersonship ahead of “winning.” Remember what she said, post-match: “…[Naomi] played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win.”
I think, however, it’s time that in all sports, athletes recognize that it’s a privilege to “play” for the outrageous amount of money the “game” provides them, and that displays of “unsportsmanlike conduct” should receive wider sanctions for all — male or female, intensely emotional situations or not. Williams wants to argue that because men “act out” and get away with it, she and all women should, too. Logically, that makes sense. What I want to argue, however, is that violently smashing rackets and angrily calling out referees and umpires should be sanctioned consistently and forcefully in all sports regardless of the players’ genders. Athletes should accept the mantle of leadership that comes with their privilege and try to teach crowds and youngsters watching that abusive behaviour is never justified just because emotions have boiled over — especially in the public arena where a “game” is being played. The ideal of “winning at any cost” should be replaced with “winning with dignity”; we’re talking about a game here, not a war!
So, you ask, what should be done if a player smashes a racket? Should there be a penalty at all, and if so, what should it be? I think that any tennis player, regardless of gender, who “abuses a racket” should have to continue playing with it for the remainder of the game or through the next game, after which they could change to a new one. Rackets could continue to be changed during games only if they were not the result of player induced rage. Of course, most often a player could not hope to play with a racket as mangled as the one Williams picked up after hurling it into the hard court; the effect of the rule would be the forfeit of the game. (“Game,” here, in the tennis sense of game, set, match. Just forfeit the game). In golf, if a player destroys his putter (or any club) during a round, s/he doesn’t get to replace it. Would I like to see similar penalties to other athletes who destroy equipment in fits of pique? Yes! But this is not the time to digress into that morass. This piece is about tennis only.
“Verbal abuse” is a much more difficult matter to determine. Where is the line between an appropriate and sporting objection to a call and verbal abuse of another player or an umpire or line judge? Remember Serena’s outrageous threats against the line judge when she was assessed a “foot fault” at the 2009 US Open semi-final? My solution for this problem would be to make much better use of technology. Reduce the dependency on humans to call “faults” and let the same tech that is currently used to resolve disputes, such as the “Chase review” for line rulings, make every call. We’ll likely still need a chair umpire, but do we still need line judges? How silly would a player look arguing his/her case with a machine?
Some will argue that using technology this way will slow down the game. I disagree. The rulings will be just as quick as the display of service speed on the IBM monitor. The rulings will be called out instantly by a computerized voice without any trace of human emotion. No more half-second-delayed calls while the line judge tries to recall what s/he just saw….
Let’s apply my ideas to the 2018 US Open Women’s final. If coaching were permitted, Williams’ first code violation would have been moot. Serena would not have had a reason to go ballistic towards the umpire. If, after she lost the fifth game, she had smashed her racket in disgust at her own play failures, she would have been penalized one game (or allowed to continue for one game with the damaged one) which would have tied the match at 3-3. We don’t know how Serena would have dealt with her emotions, but if she had acted “unsportspersonlike,” at least she would have had only herself to blame…. Had Naomi continued to play with the cool she displayed throughout the entire match on Saturday — and won, she could have enjoyed her victory with all the honour she was due.
Postscript: As I was writing this piece, I kept expecting someone else to publish a similar response. Just as I thought I was finished (including the further research section below), it arrived — from none other than Martina Navratilova, writing in the Washington Post, September 10, 2018): Her piece echoes my thoughts, although she doesn’t cover all of the remedies I’ve outlined (we do agree on allowing coaching): Here’s the most important excerpt in my opinion:
“It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behaviour that no one should be engaging in on the court ). There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket ” (my emphasis).
If you’re in a mood for further research, I strongly recommend that you read the article listed below (and others) about The IceBorg, Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis superstar who won Wimbledon five times in a row (1976–1980) along with six French Open titles (1974-1981). He never won the US or Australian Opens.
Except from The silence of Borg that was misunderstood | Sport | The Guardian (2007):
“Borg was called a machine. His detractors, and some of his admirers, said he had no pulse (it was actually recorded at 35 bpm), no fear, no heart. How wrong they were.
His game was built on emotional restraint — an asceticism never since seen on court — and yet he was the most emotional player of them all. While his contemporaries raged and hollered, he internalized. Through his five Wimbledon triumphs and six French Open wins he barely uttered a word, let alone questioned a decision.
If he had not existed, Ingmar Bergman, his fellow countryman, would have had to invent him. There was so much going on in those silences. Out on court he seemed to be groping for the very meaning of life.
You just knew his silences were rooted in some deeper struggle. After he quit he admitted that at the heart of it had been his determination to master a suspect temperament. At 14 he had been punished for racket abuse and shouting. His parents told him he was finished with tennis unless he could control his temper “(emphasis mine).
While much of Borg’s post-tennis life was ‘a mess,’ he is today, at 62, a fine representative of the sport he loved. In December 2014 he was elected Sweden’s top sportsperson of all time by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter…. Arthur Ashe told Sports Illustrated (May 6, 1991) “I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam, but by the time he left, the historical challenge didn’t mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody. (From Borg’s Wikipedia entry.)
Finally, full disclosure, I have struggled all my life to control my temper — and often failed. That said, I make no excuses for that failing, and as I continue to try to reign in my own emotions, I urge everyone to find appropriate ways to deal with theirs….
Violence and abuse are never the answer!
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