NEW YORK — Much more than the eponym for the grounds on which America’s Grand Slam is showcased, Billie Jean King, winner of 39 combined Grand Slam titles, was and continues to be a civil rights giant, instrumental in paving the way for future generations of women to be treated equally in their respective workplaces, sports or otherwise. If any athlete since Billie Jean has come anywhere near close to filling the shoes of her greatness on and off the playing surface, Serena Williams has been more than a suitable heir during her 20 years of dominance in tennis.
On the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday night, Williams continued to cement such a legacy during one of the more difficult on-court losses of her career – and in circumstances where many can argue that the miasmic air of sexism arose once more in the game after at least one questionable decision from the match’s chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.
Williams, also the owner of 39 combined Grand Slam titles and one singles Grand Slam away from tying that record of 24, will not be remembered by her performance against Naomi Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam title with her win against Serena. However, it will be remembered more by how the six-time US Open champion vented her frustrations at two code violations called by Ramos, and then a third violation for verbal abuse. Williams, while pointed with her language, did not swear at Ramos, and her arguments did not too much from a number of remonstrations directed at chair umpires made by men in matches who subsequently did not get code violations afterward.
“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman,” Williams said in the post-match press conference. “They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Osaka won the match in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, to make history as the first Japanese player to win a major singles title, but the biggest issue that Williams had ended up not being on the scoreboard. Williams and Ramos first clashed when, during the second game of the second set and with Williams up 1-0, he announced a code violation for coaching from her player’s box and coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Immediately Williams confronted Ramos, walking to the chair and assertive in her claim that she would never receive coaching while on the court and that the communication that she and her box usually have had in past matches is not coaching nor anything Ramos would be privy to. (After the match, Mouratoglou admitted that he did make a gesture in the lines of a coaching strategy while in the box, though there is no evidence that Serena ever saw the gesture. A player can receive a code violation for coaching even if the player never observes it.)
Battling her way back into the match, Williams appeared to be taking that initial negative energy coming from the personal affront for being cited for cheating the rules of the game and using it as a force to wheel her back into the match, taking a 3-1 lead in the second set after breaking Osaka for the first time. Williams, however, played a poor game immediately afterward, allowing Osaka to break back. Angry with herself, Williams smashed her racquet on the court, prompting a second code violation from Ramos, one that came with a point penalty for a second code violation offense. Emotions were already at a boil at that time, and when Williams realized Osaka was ahead 15-0 for the first point was played out, it just added kindling to the pyre that Ashe Stadium was starting to become. Williams, initially confused with the score, approached Ramos again to clear up the initial coaching warning and get an explanation on the call.
“It may have looked like I was getting coaching, but I’m telling you, that’s not what I do. I’d rather lose than have to cheat to win. I don’t need to cheat to win. I’ve won enough,” Williams said.
After Osaka won the next two games to take a 4-3 lead, Williams’s protestations became more animated during the changeover, calling Ramos “a thief” for the point she was deducted after the second violation while asserting multiple times that Ramos owed her an apology. As the players got up to walk back to their positions after the changeover ended, Ramos issued her a third violation, resulting in a lost game and putting Osaka one game away from the championship. Williams, clearly frustrated with the call, asked to speak with the tournament referee, Brian Earley, who was accompanied by the Grand Slam supervisor, in the hopes of an overrule to Ramos’ prior decisions.
During her protests, Williams was not shy – nor incorrect – in stating the double standard between women’s tennis players and men’s tennis players who usually escape violations for prolonged and vehement outbursts directed at the chair.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams said. “For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal — like [Alize] Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine. This is outrageous.”
Those sentiments were immediately shared by Billie Jean King, who said in a tweet that women are perceived as “hysterical” when they show emotion on the court but men are just expressing themselves when they are engage in the same sort of behavior.
(2/2) When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) September 9, 2018
Shortly after the match was over and Osaka tried her best in taking in her historic win, making her the first Japanese-born player to win a singles title, she and the rest of the assembled dignitaries during the trophy ceremony were greeted by boos from the incensed crowd, upset more at the way the match transpired instead of the players themselves. On the sidelines, just before the start of the ceremony and after she went up to her player box to embrace her mom and support staff, Osaka covered her head with a towel and was in tears, somewhat making it hard to tell who won or lost. This was the moment when Serena showed true sportsmanship, like the champion she always has been, as she addressed the displeased crowd and implored them to give Osaka the opportunity to enjoy her major accomplishment.
“This is her moment. Stop booing because she doesn’t deserve it,” Williams said. I don’t deserve it. She played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win. I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment. I felt like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.’”
Williams fell short in her quest to take her place atop the statistical hierarchy of women’s singles Grand Slam winners, but even greater lessons can be delivered many times in defeat. Williams’s voice will continue to resonate, sounding for change for women in sports who deserve to be treated as equal as men.