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Serena Williams’s US Open fight with umpire Carlos Ramos, explained

Male tennis players have been celebrated for snapping at umpires. Serena Williams was punished for it.

2018 US Open - Day 13
Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open final.
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The 2018 US Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The match was guaranteed to make history no matter what. Williams was gunning for her 24th Grand Slam tournament win, a number that would have tied the all-time record for the most Grand Slam singles tournament wins in history. And Osaka was hoping to be the first Japanese player in history to win a Grand Slam.

In the end, Osaka defeated Williams 6-2, 6-4, ensuring the latter — but her achievement was overshadowed by what happened in the match.

During a pivotal pocket of the second set, chair umpire Carlos Ramos charged Williams with three code violations, abruptly shifting the momentum of the match. The first violation saw Ramos warn Williams for receiving coaching in a moment that set off a ripple effect: Williams contested the warning and continued playing, but before the match was over, she had busted her racket, called the umpire a thief, and received two scoring penalties.

In the blink of an eye, the score went from Williams being down 4-3 to her being down 5-3 and serving to stay in the championship. Things progressed so quickly that Osaka didn’t seem to realize what was happening on the other side of the court.

When the dust settled, Williams was denied her chance to mount a comeback at the US Open just one year after having a baby and fighting for her own life after childbirth. Meanwhile, Osaka was denied a chance to defeat Williams on her own terms.

People all over the world are still replaying what happened, like trying to unravel a knot. Was Williams treated unfairly? Was her outburst out of line? Was she treated like her male counterparts would have been if they’d behaved exactly like she did? According to her critics, Williams behaved badly and her fate was self-inflicted; according to her fans, she was unfairly targeted by a sexist, egotistical man.

In a game rooted in simplicity — where every ball is either in or out, and points are either won or lost — Saturday night’s tennis match was anything but. The 2018 US Open women’s final will absolutely go down in history, but not because of how Williams and Osaka played. Instead, it will be remembered for the conversation it spurred about Williams’s hard-fought legacy in tennis, and sexism and double standards in the sport.

What actually happened between Serena Williams and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos

Tennis is a strange sport that can be difficult to follow, due to its scoring structure and the way points are called. But its code of conduct and the violations and penalties that were imposed on Williams at the US Open are distinct and clear.

In the US, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) maintains the same rules for all players, from juniors all the way up to adult tennis players, about how they’re expected to conduct themselves on the court. These rules cover a range of situations, from instructing players to give their opponent the benefit of the doubt on difficult calls (at the junior level, players call their own lines and whether balls are in or out) to how to handle lateness or a game delay.

Rules governing acceptable on-court behavior are taught at all levels, starting at an early age.

And at the Grand Slam level, the International Tennis Federation implements a code of conduct and point penalty system that governs how violations of unsportsmanlike conduct are doled out:

The Point Penalty Schedule to be used for violations set forth above is as follows:
First offence: Warning
Second offence: Point penalty
Third and each subsequent offence: Game penalty

Per Ramos’s calls during the championship match, Williams committed two offenses that cost her a point and a game — racket abuse and abuse of an official/umpire — both of which came after he issued her a verbal warning for coaching.

And the warning for coaching came because coaching is forbidden by the ITF Grand Slam rulebook. The rulebook states that “communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching,” and that coaching violations follow the point penalty system.

With that said, while the ITF strictly prohibits “coaching,” anyone who watches professional tennis will see players looking up at their coaching boxes (where their coach sits) and coaches looking back and saying something to their players. The rule is rarely enforced, and players rarely receive code violations for it.

That’s why it was so surprising when Ramos warned Williams for coaching during the championship match. In the second game of the second set, with Williams behind, Ramos spotted what he believed was Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, giving hand signals to Williams, and issued Williams a warning.

“I have never cheated in my life,” Williams said, taking offense to the warning and contesting it, telling Ramos that she’d rather lose than cheat. “You owe me an apology.”

Mouratoglou himself said later during an interview with ESPN that he was giving hand signals to Serena — as many other professional tennis coaches have been known to do, despite the coaching rule — but that she didn’t see him.

“Well, I mean, I’m honest, I was coaching,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think she looked at me, so that’s why she didn’t even think I was.”

Williams didn’t receive any scoring penalties for her coaching code violation. But it’s important to recognize the warning she received for it as the catalyst that set the rest of the contentious events of the match in motion.

After the verbal warning for coaching, Williams was actually ahead in the second set, at three games to one. But then she played a poor game and lost, narrowing her lead over Osaka to 3-2. She smashed her racket on the ground, and Ramos issued his first official penalty against her, by docking her a point in the next game.

“You stole a point from me,” Williams told Ramos forcefully, though she did not yell. She also called him a thief (as seen in the highlights video above).

Irate over the smashed racket violation, Williams explained to Ramos that she shouldn’t have been warned for coaching and that the racquet abuse should have been the verbal warning — not the point penalty.

Then, after play resumed, Williams lost the next two games, putting Osaka at four games to Williams’s three. Then Williams once again confronted Ramos for the point penalty.

“You are a liar. You will never be on a court of mine as long as you live. When are you going to give me my apology? Say you are sorry,” she said.

This is when Ramos issued his second official penalty against Williams, for abusing an umpire or official. He awarded a game to Osaka, and the score became 5-3, with Williams serving to stay in the match. Williams ultimately lost the next game — and thus the set — and Osaka won the match.

Altogether, Williams committed three violations, for which she would ultimately be fined $17,000. After the match, she was officially penalized for a coaching warning ($4,000), racket abuse ($3,000), and verbal abuse ($10,000). However, one might argue that the fines pale in comparison to her in-game penalties of losing a point and then a game — major punishments in any professional match, let alone a Grand Slam final. And that’s where things get especially tricky. Because no one is suggesting that Williams didn’t violate ITF rules. Rather, it’s how the penalties were issued and whether Ramos issued them fairly that is spurring controversy and debate.

Serena Williams’s flare-up with the chair umpire shows how inconsistent, and perhaps sexist, tennis officiating can be

Both during the match and after her loss, Williams argued that the penalties issued against her were the result of Ramos having a sexist attitude toward her.

“To lose a game for saying [that Ramos is a thief] is not fair,” Williams said during the match. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen.”

After the match, Williams further explained that she felt she was held to a different standard than male tennis players who’ve done similar things or worse.

“I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief because I thought he took a game from me, but I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams said. “And 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 took a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’”

Williams is referring to is how male tennis players frequently aren’t punished and are sometimes even celebrated for defending themselves against what they perceive to be bad calls. This goes back to the 1970s and ’80s, to the heyday of players like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — two cornerstones of American tennis who were well-known and beloved for their hot tempers and tendency to buck tennis authority.

McEnroe in particular is now making a living providing tennis commentary on live broadcasts, where he’s been praised for calling out bad calls from officials.

“And so that’s sort of a weird dynamic, to put it mildly — that I’m actually getting paid extra but for things I used to get fined for,” he told the New York Times in 2015.

But you don’t need to look back very far into tennis history to find an example of the double standard that Williams was talking about during the post-championship press conference. Earlier in the Open, those who watched John Isner’s second round match against Nicolas Jarry witnessed Isner have a complete meltdown and look at his coach after losing a game in the third set. At the end of his tantrum, Isner completely destroyed his racket. He was only assessed a verbal warning for this code violation, and it was considered his first offense.

John Isner’s US Open racket abuse.

In the days following Williams and Osaka’s championship match, tennis groups and former players voiced support for Williams, saying her conduct was not treated the same as that of other players, specifically her male counterparts.

“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women,” said Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, in a statement on Sunday. “We do not believe that this was done [during the championship match].”

The USTA also showed Williams its support.

“There’s no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires and what the women are doing, and I think there has to be some consistency across the board,” USTA chief Katrina Adams said in a statement. “I’m all about gender equality and I think when you look at that situation these are conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks. We have to treat each other fairly and the same.”

A few retired male tennis players have also weighed in on Williams’s penalization, saying that they have said worse things to umpires and not gotten docked points. James Blake, a former professional American tennis player who was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, explained on Twitter that he was treated very differently than Serena:

Andy Roddick, who won the 2003 US Open, also tweeted about how he’s said worse and never faced a penalty like Williams’s:

Granted, some of this could be blamed on inconsistent rule-enforcing from umpire to umpire. It’s not Ramos’s fault if he was enforcing rules that other umpires have not. But the penalties he doles out should be consistent.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in Williams’s favor is that historically, Ramos has had several heated disagreements with male tennis players — with different results. As the Guardian pointed out, Ramos has gotten into arguments with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal and didn’t penalize them the way he did Serena.

For example, at Wimbledon earlier this year, Ramos issued a verbal warning to Djokovic for unsportsmanlike conduct, and it resulted in Djokovic complaining, like Williams did. But the warning was all he received:

Ramos didn’t antagonize the situation with Djokovic. In that instance, he let Djokovic release his steam and anger — the soft warning that Blake refers to in the tweet embedded above. But in Williams’s case, the penalties that Ramos issued didn’t reflect the tolerance he has shown in the past for male players.

To the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, Ramos’s behavior at the US Open was an example of Ramos’s sexism.

“At that moment, [after the point penalty] was up to Ramos to de-escalate the situation, to stop inserting himself into the match and to let things play out on the court,” Jenkins wrote. “All Ramos had to do was to continue to sit coolly above it, and Williams would have channeled herself back into the match. But he couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way. A man, sure. Ramos has put up with worse from a man.”

Tennis hall-of-famer Billie Jean King also weighed in, arguing Ramos showed a double standard:

In the moment, Williams was visibly angry. She was in the finals of a Grand Slam and all eyes were on her legacy — if she had won, she would have tied Australian player Margaret Court’s singles tournament record. Here was an umpire who had officially marked down that she was cheating, not only in one of the biggest matches of her career but in a way that she felt would taint her legacy.

But it’s also unfortunately the latest chapter in Serena Williams’s tumultuous, prickly history with the US Open.

Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time. She’s also had to put up with circumstances no other player has had to endure.

It’s easy to look at Serena Williams’s accomplishments, her 23 Grand Slam tournament trophies, and chalk them up to her being undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes that history has ever seen.

But her legacy is filled with a battle not just against her opponents in the sport, but against the ignorance and outright racism she has experienced both on and off the court. Williams has had to earn and defend her greatness every step of the way, and while her experiences don’t automatically excuse the moments where she’s crossed the line, it becomes easier to understand why she would react the way she does when she believes her character has been called into question.

At the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, when Williams and her sister Venus were starting to assert themselves as top players, the two sisters were called the n-word by fans after Venus declined to play Serena because she was injured. At the 2003 French Open, Justine Henin clearly lied about distracting Williams by putting her hand up, but it was Williams who received the boos from the French crowd for arguing the point.

“It was just a tough crowd out there today, really very tough; story of my life,” Williams said in the post-match interview.

Off the court, both in the media and in books by her rivals, she has often been described as having an unfair physical advantage. Maria Sharapova, who was recently suspended from competition for doping, has often referred to Williams as having an unfair advantage due to her size, and as being big and powerful. But it was Sharapova who was suspended for more than a year for taking a performance-enhancing drug, and it’s Sharapova who stands 5 or so inches taller than Williams.

Williams has also talked about how she believes she is drug-tested more often than many of her opponents.

And just this year, Williams saw the French Open ban her catsuit because it was seen as disrespectful.

Even though the US Open is where Serena won her first Grand Slam in 1999, the tournament has also been a home of controversy for her before this year’s incident.

In 2004, Williams was the victim of one of the most embarrassing series of line-calling errors in tennis history:

Williams was playing Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals when four questionable calls, which officials later identified as mistakes (thanks to video replay, viewers at home were able to see the mistakes), were made against Williams in the third set.

The worst call of the night belonged to umpire Mariana Alves, who overruled a Serena Williams winner (a ball that lands in and is untouched by your opponent) that was clearly inside the sideline and gave Capriati the point. Williams ultimately lost the match and was eliminated from competition. Officials later barred Alves from officiating for the rest of the tournament, and in 2006 installed Hawk-Eye technology to let players challenge calls and keep umpires honest.

Five years later, in 2009, during a semifinal match against Kim Clijsters, Williams verbally berated a linesperson who had called a foot fault (when a server’s foot touches or crosses the baseline before the serve is hit) on her during a crucial moment. There’s no definitive video of the call (Hawk-Eye technology is not used for foot faults), but Williams did not believe she foot-faulted. Williams was assessed a penalty for verbal abuse, which cost her the match.

And in 2011, Serena faced Samantha Stosur in the US Open final. Down and trying to mount a comeback, Serena cracked a brilliant shot and yelled as it bounced on Stosur’s side. The umpire said Serena had hindered Stosur’s play on the ball and gave Stosur the point. Not unlike what happened with Ramos, Serena unleashed on the umpire (though she was not penalized further).

All of this history at the US Open may have been weighing on Williams as she considered what happened during the 2018 final. She said in the post-match interview after her loss to Osaka that she still thinks about what happened in 2004.

“I think it’s just instantly, just like, ‘Oh, gosh, I don’t want to go back to 2004,’” she told reporters. “It started way back then. So it’s always something.”

Williams’s behavior in 2009 and 2011 wasn’t admirable. But we also don’t know how much of her defensiveness and anger stem from scars and wounds we’re not privy to. Nor will we ever know how other players would react if they were treated in the same way Williams has been throughout her career.

Her career has been peppered with people claiming she doesn’t deserve or disrespecting her triumphs. Ramos’s verbal warning for coaching, which could have been issued any professional player at any match at any time, to Williams felt like an attack on her person. And it came at a place that has a turbulent historical significance for her.

Williams’s defensiveness about her legacy, especially in the face of so many who have wanted to tear it down or call it into question, might not be something we can all agree on. But when you look at her history, it’s easy to understand where her defensiveness comes from.

Naomi Osaka did not get the celebration or recognition she properly deserved

The saddest element of this saga is how Naomi Osaka’s first Grand Slam win will be overshadowed by Williams’s penalties.

Osaka, who grew up idolizing the Williams sisters, played brilliant tennis. Her forehand was locked in, and for the entire match she had Williams running from corner to corner. Williams seemed stunned, before mounting her mini comeback in the second set and seemingly playing Osaka even.

By penalizing Williams by awarding Osaka the game and making the score to 5-3, Ramos gave Osaka a considerable advantage, taking away her opportunity to clearly win the match on her own terms. It shifted the narrative of the match from Osaka outplaying Serena to Serena shooting herself in the foot, and no one will ever be able to know what the outcome might have been if it weren’t for Ramos’s penalties.

“Like, I really didn’t hear anything that was going on,” Osaka said in her post-match interview. “And when I turned around, it was 5-3. So I was a little bit confused then. But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during this match because she’s such a great champion, and I know that she can come back from any point.”

The US Open crowd made their displeasure over Ramos’s calls known, by booing throughout the end of the second set as well as during the trophy presentation. While no one was booing Osaka’s efforts, the jeers certainly sullied the trophy presentation — so much so that Williams stepped in and called for people to stop.

“Let’s make this the best moment we can, and we’ll get through it,” Williams said during the trophy ceremony. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re gonna get through this, and let’s be positive. So congratulations, Naomi! No more booing.”

From that moment on, the boos yielded to cheers. Osaka was encouraged to celebrate, posing for photos, like all champions do, with the trophy she earned. But there’s an unavoidable feeling that Osaka’s accomplishment in defeating a 23-time Grand Slam champion is just a footnote, considering all the drama. On a night on which accusations of thievery and cheating unfolded, it’s important to remember that in many people’s eyes, Osaka was robbed too.

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