by Noah Tan on

Let’s make it clear right from the start – sexism does exist in the sport of tennis. And yes, it is a problem that needs to be dealt with, quickly.

But, was sexism the real issue at play during Saturday’s much-talked-about US Open final between Serena Williams and Japan’s Naomi Osaka?

No, it was not.

The problem that day was none other than Williams herself, and her misplaced sense of self-righteousness.

Following her loss in straight sets to a deserving Osaka, Williams went on a rant in the post-match conference as she accused umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism.

Her accusation stemmed from Ramos’ decision to slap Williams with three code violations during the match – something, she claims, only happened because of her gender.

It didn’t matter to Williams that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had admitted to committing the offence of trying to coach her from the stands.

Image Source: Shutterstock / lev radin

It didn’t matter to her either that she had smashed her racket in anger after misplaying a shot.

And it certainly didn’t matter to her that she had verbally abused Ramos and called into question his integrity by labelling him a “thief”.

According to the laws of tennis, Williams completely deserved all the three code violations handed to her.

But the 36-year-old conveniently turned a blind eye to that.

All she wanted to do instead was to push the agenda that Ramos – and by extension, the entire sport itself – was sexist, and that she had been a victim of discrimination in the final.

Her argument was centred on the fact that many male players had committed the same offences or worse, but were not penalised.

“There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right,” Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam winner, told Ramos after he had slapped her with a game penalty following her third code violation.

Williams is right in claiming that many male players have broken their rackets, verbally abused umpires, and discreetly received instructions from their coaches in the stands without being penalised, when the rules clearly state that they should.

But, what Williams neglected to bring up were the many other times when male players did get penalised for the very same offences.

In addition, she failed to address the fact that Ramos is no stranger to the ire of the top tennis players in the world – both male and female. The Portuguese official has a reputation for being a stickler for the rules, and previously clashed with the likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic over similar infringements.

If anything, Ramos was simply culpable of being an inconsistent umpire – a common fault of match officials in sports.

But, sexist? No. Not in this instance anyway.

In any case, questions have to be asked of the sort of equality that Williams wanted.

Because in the cold light of day, Williams was basically asking for the right to behave as badly as some of her male counterparts without facing any repercussions.

Now, is that something she should be fighting for?

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova summed this point up nicely in her opinion piece for the New York Times. She wrote: “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘if men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’ Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honour our sport and to respect our opponents?”

Those who have followed Williams’s storied career would also know that she has a history of turning on match officials when things do not go her way.

This lends credence to the suspicion that Williams’s on-court tirade in the final was borne out of frustration at how the match was going – she had lost the first set, and had just thrown away a 3-1 lead in the second set, with Osaka levelling things up at 3-3.

Ramos, and his zealousness to apply the letter of the law, appears to have simply been a convenient outlet for her anger.

Image Source: Shutterstock / Leonard Zhukovsky

Ultimately, Williams wasn’t fighting for women’s rights or for equality. She was simply fighting for herself.

Ironically, by stirring up this storm of controversy over discrimination during the final, Williams caused her opponent on the day, Osaka, to be marginalised and ostracised by the partisan crowd at New York City’s Arthur Ashe Stadium.

As boos rang around the stadium during the trophy presentation ceremony, Osaka, standing on the podium, pulled her visor down and cried. She even felt compelled to apologise to the crowd for winning.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that everyone was cheering for her (Williams) and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

On any other day, cheers would have rung out for 20-year-old Osaka following her maiden Grand Slam title win. Her success against such an illustrious opponent would have been lauded. Osaka’s mature and composed performance in what was also her first-ever Grand Slam final, at such a tender age, would have dominated the headlines.

Instead, because of Williams’s misguided actions, the greatest triumph of Osaka’s career to date has been consigned to being a footnote of this year’s US Open final.

Image Source: Shutterstock / lev radin

Indeed, Williams’s attempts to turn the narrative of the final into one about sexism may end up harming, rather than helping, the actual fight for gender equality.

After all, as one of the most marketable and recognisable sportswomen in the world, and arguably the best-ever tennis player in the women’s game, Williams has the ability to influence millions with her words and actions.

Channelled properly, that influence could be used to help effect positive changes for both women and blacks.

Now, however, because of this self-initiated hullabaloo, Williams’s credibility on matters of equality will be diminished.

By flippantly using “sexism” as an argument against the legitimate calls by Ramos, she has trivialised a real problem that is faced by many women around the world on a daily basis.

And the next time she brings up issues regarding gender or racial inequality, people will invariably wonder: is she speaking about this from a place of genuine concern for the discriminated? Or is she just speaking out for herself?

There is much to respect about Williams and how she rose to the top of the game, becoming an inspiration for black women in the process.

In this instance, however, Williams’s behaviour fell well short of the standard expected of a respected global icon like herself.

And with the fallout from the events of the final still reverberating – even now, tennis umpires are reportedly considering boycotting all of Williams’s matches in support of Ramos – it will take time and effort for Williams’s reputation to recover.

But, I guess that is the penalty she has to pay.