Chair umpire discretion can be a blessing and a curse. For Serena (and Naomi Osaka), unfortunately it was the latter.
The 2018 US Open Women’s Final was explosive, and not just because Serena Williams lost what would have been her 24th Grand Slam to a 20-year-old who had never won one. This evening, Serena lost in straight sets to Naomi Osaka, an up-and-comer who dreamt of playing against her idol. I’m sure Naomi never thought the match and her first Grand Slam win would go this way.
In the first set, Serena and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, received a warning after Mouratoglou appeared to be coaching her to move towards the net, which is a code violation. Serena was fuming at the well-respected, veteran chair umpire Carlos Ramos, interpreting his warning to be accusing her of cheating. She had words with Ramos, telling him “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” before she later conciliated that perhaps he had misunderstood Mouratoglou’s “thumbs up” (see a clip of Mouratoglou’s hand gestures below). At this point, things seemed to calm down. For the moment.
Serena lost the first set 6-2.
In the fifth game of the second set, Serena smashed her racket on the court after losing a break point. Ramos gave her a point penalty for abuse of equipment. Under Article IV, Section R of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Pro Circuit Regulations, the umpire can penalize players using the “Point Penalty Schedule.” The schedule dictates that the first offense be met with a verbal warning, a second offense be met with a point penalty, and a third (and each subsequent offense) result in a game penalty. However, the umpire has discretion in opting whether to warn or penalize players.
After this point penalty, Serena’s blood began to boil again. She was down just 4-3 in the second set when she told Ramos: “For you to attack my character is wrong. You owe me an apology. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.” Ramos responded by giving her a game penalty for verbal abuse under the Point Penalty Schedule, thereby increasing Osaka’s lead to 5-3.
Serena was up in arms; she demanded that she speak with the US Open referee, Brian Earley. She pleaded with Earley: “You know my character. This is not right. To lose a game for saying that, it’s not fair. How many other men do things? There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things. It’s because I am a woman, and that’s not right.” (*Ahem, John McEnroe*). But her pleading was to no avail as Earley could not (even if he wanted to) reverse Ramos’s decision; the game penalty stood.
Serena managed to pull out one more game, bringing the score in the second to 5-4, but Osaka was just too good tonight. She cemented her first Grand Slam victory, and the first Grand Slam in history for any Japanese player, male or female, with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Serena.
It’s a shame that Osaka’s huge victory was overshadowed by the penalty controversy – during the trophy ceremony, the crowd loudly booed, undoubtedly directed at Carlos Ramos and the US Open officials. Serena, as the veteran player and Osaka’s idol, quieted the crowd. During her turn at the mic, she said “Let’s make this best the moment. We can and will get through it. Let’s not boo anymore. Let’s stay positive. Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.”
Mouratoglou did in fact admit he was coaching and stated that in his entire career, he had never before been warned about it. Many tennis experts followed up the match by discussing the no-coaching rule. On ESPN’s broadcast, Chris Evert told her colleagues “every coach coaches,” and that “it’s against the rules and every coach does it.”
So why was Serena penalized for a violation that is incredibly common, even customary? It all amounts to the discretion afforded the chair umpire.
Notably, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been trying out on-court coaching in qualifying rounds of the tournament and in the US Open series this summer. This experiment has been received well by both players and fans.
However, Carlos Ramos’s actions today stand in stark contrast to another chair umpire’s actions last week during Nick Kyrgios’s US Open second round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Kyrgios, the bad boy of tennis, appeared to be tanking until the chair umpire himself, Mohamed Lahyani, jumped down to console Kyrgios! Kyrgios had lost the first set, before coming from behind to win the next three sets, securing the match (he lost to Roger Federer in the next round).
This isn’t Serena’s first experience with the Point Penalty Schedule at the US Open. In her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters in 2009, she notoriously received a point penalty after telling a lineswoman: “If I could, I would take this —-ing ball and shove it down your —-ing throat.” And in her 2011 final against Sam Stosur, she received a code violation after telling chair umpire Eva Asderaki: “If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way. You’re out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside.”
This is just the latest in a string of controversies in the world of women’s tennis. On August 29th at the Open, Alize Cornet received a warning for quickly changing her shirt on the court, when many men have been on court sans shirt. And the French Open banned Serena’s Nike catsuit last month, which led to a public outcry and claims of racism, sexism, and unfair treatment aimed specifically at Serena.
Today’s events raise even more questions about the equity of refereeing in women’s professional tennis. Clearly, the integrity of the outcomes must be weighed against the discretion exercised by chair umpires. Simply put, today proved that the US Open final is not the right time to enforce a rule that is otherwise ignored during the rest of tournament . . . and the other 11 months of the touring season.
*Quote from Chris Evert
Featured Photo Courtesy of: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports