If you haven’t seen the news story, you must have seen the memes. The 2018 US Women’s Open final saw 20-year-old Naomi Osaka defeating Serena Williams. Umpire Carlos Ramos took a point from Williams and then responded to her protestations, giving her a game penalty late in the second set. This sparked controversy as people called out the sexist double standard which female tennis players repeatedly face.
So what actually went down and why are gender and race relevant?
Initially, Williams was penalised for being coached – which in tennis is considered cheating. In an interview with ESPN, Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to coaching Serena from the box but accused Ramos of singling out Williams. “Everybody does it — you all know it.” Williams responded by calling Ramos a “thief” after which he gave her a warning and when she got frustrated and threw down her racket during the second set, Ramos imposed a point penalty for abuse of equipment.
It is no surprise that audiences and fans called out the blaring sexist double standard. John McEnroe, the famous retired American tennis player, smashed his rackets and called umpires idiots and morons, yet the furthest an umpire reprimanded him for racket abuse was a warning in 1988 at Wimbledon. It’s also hard to ignore that Ramos’ disciplining infantilizes Williams. It sets a tone of disrespect for female players as honest competitors, doubling as a humiliating warning for Osaka.
It sets a tone of disrespect for female players as honest competitors
As Lonnae O’Neal, writing for The Undefeated, noted: “Anyone who can see that Williams is a woman can also see she’s black.” An analysis of the US open final is incomplete without considering the fact that actually, both players were women of colour. There is a reason why the focus was centred on Williams’ reaction rather than the injustice that prompted it. It is because Williams is a woman of colour that her aggrieved reaction immediately warranted her comparison to the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman.’ The controversy lies not only in Williams’ treatment from the umpire. After the final, a cartoon by Mark Knight for Melbourne’s Herald Sun, that has been widely criticised as racist, went viral. It plays on historic racist tropes of drawing Black people, harking back to the Jim Crow era, depicting Williams with exaggerated lips and a dummy on the ground.
Unfortunately for Osaka, this means that her win at the open final has become completely overshadowed by the response to Williams’ reaction. Not only does the narrative exclude what prompted Serena’s reaction but also any celebration of Osaka, a rising POC talent. If anything, Osaka’s smaller build, which fits conventional understandings of femininity, was manipulated to emasculate and exaggerate comparisons between Williams and ‘angry black women.’ The booing crowds that pushed Osaka to tears, instead of celebrating her achievement are a reflection of the toxicity of competitive sport when racial bias comes into play.
Richard Williams father of the Williams sisters, got people passing by to shout insults at the sisters while they practised, to prepare them for racism and sexism that are deep-rooted in the institution of sport in the US. The 2018 US open final shows, however, that even that did not prepare Serena for “unconscious bias” or sneaky racism. Until tennis can account for and get rid of the sexism and racism reflected in this summer’s events, it will be difficult to imagine healthy competition between female players, especially ones of colour.