Skip to main content
Original Issue

A DIFFERENT KIND OF COMPETITOR

Author:

THE ERA OF SERENA THE CHAMPION MAY BE ON THE WANE. (HELLO, NAOMI OSAKA.) BUT SERENA THE CRUSADER—, FOR WOMEN'S EQUALITY, FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, FOR WORKING MOMS—IS JUST GETTING STARTED

SHE KEPT slipping away in the aftermath, falling out of the conversation, the collective memory, just as she had slipped out of view each time they showed the hands of Serena Williams's coach or chair umpire Carlos Ramos's doleful face or Serena's mangled racket or screams and tears and outraged words. "And what about Naomi Osaka's performance?" people would say in the ensuing days, but only well into some new fierce debate about the women's final of the 2018 U.S. Open. The champion? An afterthought.

Even now, in this account, you can already feel Osaka, the 20-year-old Japanese citizen of Haitian heritage with an American address who wholly dismantled Williams—her idol and dream opponent—6--2, 6--4, at Flushing Meadow on Sept. 8, getting elbowed toward the margins. How can her quirky self-possession and piercing strokes compete with 23,771 fans dropping a full 14 seconds of booing on the trophy ceremony; the National Organization of Women's post-tournament demand that Ramos be fired; reports that umpires are mulling a boycott of Williams's matches; or that racist cartoon of Serena published by an Australian newspaper two days after the final?

Even without such extremes, Osaka didn't stand a chance. Aside from derailing Serena's tutu-clad march to a record-tying 24th major title, the Williams-Ramos dispute also sparked an instant outcry about the sport's long-squishy coaching rules, highlighted its double standard regarding men's and women's comportment, and sent its alphabet soup of governing bodies scrambling—dopily, at times—to claim the high ground. Most significant, it also showcased how age, motherhood and an ever-expanding social awareness have pushed the fiercest female competitor in any sport, ever, to a career stage at which winning is almost secondary.

Oddly, that doesn't mean that Williams, 36, is any less intense. "I think she's more emotionally charged now, because she has a platform and she's just going for it," says tennis icon Chris Evert. "Serena has said she wants to be known more for off-the-court issues than for her accomplishments, and I sense that since she's had a baby, she's taken on more issues about fairness and equality. Her priorities are different; she sees people and life differently. Now she can relate a bit more to the mom who makes $20,000 a year and has to get food on the table. Having a baby, I think, changes every woman. She's going for everything."

Some won't buy it. Nothing could be easier than lumping Williams's most recent Open tempest in with her infamous Flushing Meadow tantrums of 2009 ("I'm going to shove this f------ ball down your f------ throat!") and '11 ("I hate you!"). But she has been outspoken about issues of race and policing for years, and after the birth of her one-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia, Williams indeed wrote an essay for CNN on the health-care concerns of poor and black mothers, and tweeted in solidarity with protesting NFL players and mothers struggling with postpartum depression.

It's important to note, too, that her earlier meltdowns arose out of disputable calls during match play. This one, coming amid her comeback from a health-threatening childbirth, began with a reasonable chat that escalated only after Williams decided that her character was being called into question.

"You owe me an apology: I have never cheated in my life!" Williams abruptly screamed at Ramos in what, in retrospect, was the argument's point of no return. "I have a daughter, and I stand [for] what's right for her!"

To be clear: After spying Patrick Mouratoglou gesturing to Williams from her player box early in the second set, Ramos should've weighed the stakes and given Williams a so-called soft warning; the chair's mismanagement, there and then, touched off the chain of events that, as Mouratoglou rightly says, "screw[ed] the final."

But a code violation for coaching doesn't necessarily implicate the player—and as a 23-year tour vet Williams knows it. She also should know, better than anyone, how penalties compound and that a chair umpire cannot reverse a code violation on court. Yet although Ramos never said so, Williams somehow inferred that he had reversed his original code violation and realized that wasn't true only after she smashed her racket and was docked a point. That led to her calling Ramos a "liar" and a "thief"—prompting her third violation, and a game penalty, for verbal abuse, and smoothing Osaka's way to championship point.

"For me to say thief, and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark," Williams said in her postmatch press conference. "He's never taken a game from a man because they said thief. It blows my mind. But I'm going to continue to fight for women."

Some eyes rolled: Serena has shown a knack, after past blowups, for disingenuously exonerating herself. But there's no doubt that, this time, she sincerely believed sexism was at work. In real time, while pleading her case on court to tournament referee Brian Earley and Grand Slam supervisor Donna Kelso, Williams tearfully voiced the obvious: Male players have uttered far more insulting words than thief (Jimmy Connors repeatedly called an umpire "an abortion" during his ever-celebrated Open run in 1991) without being docked a point, much less a game.

"That's not fair," she told Kelso. "You know how many other men ... do much worse than that." Then she turned to Earley, repeated herself and added, "But because I'm a woman you're going to take this away from me? This is not right and you know it."

Technically, of course, Ramos had every right to dock Williams for questioning his integrity, and the International Tennis Federation—unlike both the USTA and WTA—later backed him for all three sanctions. But the context of this fortnight also did him no favors. In the Open's first round, controversy erupted after France's Alize Cornet was issued a code violation for changing her shirt on court—something routinely done by men. In the second round an umpire climbed down from his chair to coddle the seemingly-tanking underachiever Nick Kyrgios—a far cry from the treatment soon to be accorded to one of the greatest players, male or female, in tennis history.

"Give her a little love," Evert said. "Give her a little bit of consideration. It's the finals. Can't you just warn her?"

IN THE past, the Williams family standard on women's rights has been carried highest by Serena's big sister, Venus, whose public stance in 2006 is credited with forcing Wimbledon to offer equal prize money to men and women. But in the minutes just after the U.S. Open final, there seemed little question as to how Serena would respond.

"Just be stronger and speak out more," said her mother, Oracene Price. "Because we know, if it had been someone else on the court, it wouldn't have never went that way. Hate to say it, but it's a man's world. Bottom line. It's, like, we're supposed to be dainty and just submissive and knuckle under. It's not asking for a whole lot: Just to be treated fair."

Minutes later, in the interview room, her daughter was just getting started. "Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine," Serena said. "This is outrageous. I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, that want to express themselves and want to be a strong woman." Her voice shook, her eyes filled. "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."

The cost? Williams never talked about the disappointment of losing on Sept. 8. She greeted Osaka with a smile and hug at the net, whispered that she was proud of her, told the crowd to stop booing and cheer the new champion during the trophy ceremony. Her entourage hardly seemed heartbroken by the fact that she'd been so outplayed.

"Yeah, she's got six of those," Price said of Serena's U.S. Open career singles wins, and laughed. "That's a feat in itself."

No, the only true victim seemed to be the victor. Osaka spent the opening minutes of the trophy ceremony weeping beneath the boos: How was she to know they weren't for her? Then USTA president Katrina Adams revealed either a stunning lack of impartiality or semantic skill by taking the microphone and saying to Williams, "Perhaps it's not the finish we were looking for today but, Serena, you are the champion of all champions." Adams later tried walking back the gaffe, but the damage was done.

"I know everyone was cheering for her," Osaka told the crowd minutes later, in tears, when the ceremony turned her way. "I'm sorry it had to end like this."

Osaka eventually brightened, taking a more fitting victory lap over the ensuing week. There was an adorable appearance on Ellen DeGeneres's show, and then announcements of new, multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals with Adidas and Nissan. After that bizarre championship moment, the sport's star-making machine finally kicked in.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Billie Jean King lauded Williams's stand, called for a reform of coaching rules and equal enforcement of on-court behavior for men and women. The WTA and the USTA—even as that organization fined Williams $17,000 for her behavior—voiced support for revamped umpire-player communications policies, with WTA CEO Steve Simon declaring, "There should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women."

That such changes will be enacted, officially or unofficially, is a foregone conclusion. Few pro sports are more sensitive to bad publicity, and the driving force has been here before. From the broadening audience to the introduction of electronic line calls to the redefining of female athleticism, Serena Williams has changed the game time and again. And she's not about to let this one go.

"I KNOW EVERYONE WAS CHEERING FOR HER," OSAKA TEARFULLY TOLD THE CROWD AT THE TROPHY PRESENTATION. "I'M SORRY IT HAD TO END LIKE THIS."