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Why Serena Williams Would Probably Have Lost The U.S. Open Even If She Didn’t Lose Her Temper


At the women’s final of the U.S. Open on Saturday, Naomi Osaka ended up becoming a bit of an afterthought—just not for the reasons everyone had expected.

Many of the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium expected to see Serena Williams tie Margaret Court for the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam championships, one year after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. They ended up watching Osaka win her first Grand Slam title, the first by any Japanese player, male or female.

Osaka’s straight-set victory seemed overshadowed, however, after a series of controversial officiating calls. Umpire Carlos Ramos assessed three penalties against Williams: a warning for coaching, a one-point penalty for smashing her racket, then a one-game penalty for arguing. These calls prompted the crowd and Twitter to erupt with outrage and commentary.

Note the smashed racket on the ground behind Williams. Photo by Christopher Jacobs.

As in many cases where events go badly awry, several related factors led to the brouhaha in Flushing Meadows. Here’s a rundown.

The Rules

Following the controversy, players from Andy Roddick to legends like Billie Jean King and Steffi Graf—second only to Williams, with 22 Grand Slam titles during the Open era—called for re-assessing the rule on coaching players that prompted Williams’ ire. Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted in a post-match interview that he had tried to coach Serena, but said he didn’t think she had seen his attempts.

Ironically, Williams has not used on-court coaching in matches outside of Grand Slams that permit coaching. Also, as King pointed out, the violation effectively penalized Williams for the actions of her team.

During the changeovers on Saturday, I was struck by the solitude players face while competing in a Grand Slam match. Boxers can retreat to the comfort of their corner between rounds; golfers can rely upon their caddies for advice. But amidst the crowd of nearly 25,000 on Saturday, both Williams and Osaka sat entirely alone.

Two years ago, Formula One tried to ban teams from coaching drivers over the radio during races. After controversies surrounding inconsistent application of the rules, the sanctioning body abandoned the ban months after imposing it. Perhaps tennis should take a cue from motorsport and reassess the wisdom of the rule.

The Player

A guest exiting Arthur Ashe after the match said of Williams: “She probably would have lost anyway,” even had the umpire’s penalty not cost her a game. That statement seems particularly true when analyzing her play in the first set, before the controversy began. In the first set, Williams had a first-serve percentage of just 38 percent, barely over half Osaka’s 73 percent. Serena committed four double-faults to Osaka’s one, and 13 unforced errors to Osaka’s five.

Following the warning for coaching in the second game of the second set, Williams battled back briefly. She broke Osaka’s serve to go up 3-1 in the set, before Osaka came right back to break Williams’ serve. That prompted Serena to smash her racket, at which point things quickly went downhill—she received a one-point penalty, and the continued arguing led Ramos to assess the one-game penalty.

Some critics found Williams’ behavior evidence of a bad loser. Williams also has a history with officiating at the Open. She lost her final point in a 2009 match after an expletive-laden tirade, and received a fine after a 2011 confrontation with an umpire. On the other hand, in 2004 Williams received an apology from the U.S. Open after bad officiating on several line calls.

Suffice it to say that had Serena been playing at her usual level—the level she expected herself to play—events would not have escalated on Saturday. The racket smash that led to the second and third confrontations seemed more in frustration at her own performance than in anger at the officiating. (And if Serena had dominated Osaka from the get-go, Mouratoglou would have had fewer reasons to coach her.)

Williams’ competitive fire has made her a force to be reckoned with in professional tennis for decades. She won her first Grand Slam, the 1999 U.S. Open, when Osaka, her competitor on Saturday, had yet to turn two. But that competitive spirit occasionally crosses the line into anger, whether at herself or at others, as it did on Saturday.

The Umpire

The penalties assessed towards Williams led to a discussion about whether sex, or even race, played into the officiating. Coming days after Alize Cornet received a penalty for removing her top after inadvertently putting it on backwards—an incident for which tournament officials later apologized—the controversy raised complaints about sex bias in the sport.

James Blake admitted that he has said worse things to officials than Williams’ statements Saturday without penalty, and other female players criticized the double standard.

In fairness, Ramos also has a history as a stickler for the rules in men’s tennis, assessing penalties on Rafael Nadal for slow play. But—ironically, given the sex roles involved—he didn’t know his place.

No one came to Flushing Meadows to see Carlos Ramos umpire a match. Conversely, 25,000 people came to see Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka play one. Ramos put himself, and a strict adherence to the rules, ahead of giving the fans what they paid good money to see: two competitors battling it out on American tennis’ biggest stage.

Particularly in championship games, announcers and players often utter the same phrase: “Let ‘em play.” Fine the players afterwards—the tournament referee’s office did just that (and well they should have) on Sunday—but barring something egregious, don’t insert yourself into the match and make yourself the story. Ramos should have had the good sense to restrain himself.

The Fans

Even though the U.S. Open takes place in Queens, the fans’ reaction to the officiating controversy belonged in another New York City borough. All manner of Bronx cheers and boos rained down from the rafters, both during the match, and even after its conclusion.

The vast majority of the crowd had come to witness a Williams coronation, and attempted to will her on even as she stumbled during the match’s first set. But when Ramos inserted himself into the match, their enthusiasm took a darker turn:

After Saturday’s match, unlike the Wimbledon finals and Sunday men’s final, the chair umpire did not remain for the trophy presentation. Ramos high-tailed it out of Arthur Ashe Stadium the second the match concluded. Thankfully, the abuse from the crowd remained only verbal. Had projectiles started to rain down from the seats, a bad scene for tennis could have gotten ugly quickly.

I had arrived at Arthur Ashe Stadium from Philadelphia, where on Thursday I watched football’s Eagles in their season opener. During that game, Philly fans booed the quarterback who had brought them the franchise’s Super Bowl victory not seven months previously. Yet the displays at Lincoln Financial Field paled in comparison to the jeers from the U.S. Open crowd at the officiating mess.

In the row behind me, a young woman who clearly idolizes Williams shouted and screamed encouragement for her throughout the match. She, and the many other young women in the audience, deserved better than to see fans acting like children themselves, booing over ESPN anchor Tom Rinaldi during the start of the trophy presentation.

To her credit, Serena quieted the crowd and attempted to put the focus back where it belonged: “Let’s make this the best moment we can….Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.”

The (New) Champion

Osaka deserved the plaudits that she barely received following the officiating controversy. As she broke Williams’ serve in the first set, one wondered if the bright lights of Broadway would prove too much for the younger player. Instead, Osaka shone, while Williams struggled to maintain her composure.

Osaka provided two memorable moments of her own, and for all the right reasons. When interviewed following her semifinal on Thursday, Osaka couldn’t help but gush at knowing she had the chance to face Williams—her professional role model and favorite player—in the final. Second, on winning the championship Saturday, she apologized to the crowd for beating Serena, knowing that many, if not most, had come to watch a Williams championship:

The thoughtful gesture won audible gasps of admiration and sympathy from a crowd that had been booing lustily minutes previously. No one should ever feel compelled to apologize to others for trying her best, but Osaka did. Her humility even in a time of triumph helped prompt Williams to defend Osaka to the crowd. Serena’s maternal instincts rushed to defend the person who had just defeated her.

After the match, Williams admitted “there’s a lot I could learn from [Osaka] this match.” Concerning steadiness and grace in the face of adversity, we all have a lot to learn from Osaka’s example on Saturday. Hopefully, we will have many more years of her playing professional tennis to do so.

Correction: This article earlier incorrectly named the winner of 22 Grand Slam titles.