Stevens: Is Professional Tennis Sexist?

(Fred Romero/Creative Commons)

Serena Williams was dethroned in the 2018 Women’s US Open final by twenty-year-old Naomi Osaka. Apart from this being an important victory for Osaka, it has also set an important precedent for women’s tennis. Serena was the recipient of a violation for coaching, then subsequently a violation for breaking her racket.

Williams received a third violation for making rude comments towards the ref, Carlos Ramos. A microphone picked up Williams saying: “You’re attacking my character. Yes you are. You owe me an apology, You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar…When are you going to give me my apology. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. … And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too!”

These comments might seem extreme to some, but professional tennis isn’t new to poor sportsmanship. In both men’s and women’s pro tennis, especially at the highest level, being rude to the ref is somewhat commonplace. What’s important are the penalties Serena received, and the way she reacted.

Serena forfeited an entire game for the receiving a third penalty, and this has sparked a conversation about sexism in pro tennis. Serena and her fans believe she was the victim of unfair treatment based on her race and gender. In an interview following the match, Serena said: “If you’re female, you should be able to do even half of what a guy can do.” This claim has been supported by other professional players and spectators alike. Even  legendary women’s tennis player Billie Jean King has praised Serena for standing up for women’s rights.

Former professional tennis player James Blake tweeted a response to this issue which expressed sympathy, saying: “I will admit I have said worse and not gotten penalized. And I’ve also been given a “soft warning” by the ump where they tell you knock it off or I will have to give you a violation.  He should have at least given her that courtesy. Sad to mar a well played final that way.

James’s tweet isn’t a confirmation of Serena’s claims, but it shows that there is likely evidence to support her.

On the men’s side, some have been punished even harder. In the US open last year, Italian player Fabio Fognini was kicked out of the tournament for his comments to the ref. Fabio cursed at the ref in Italian. For his vulgarity, Fabio was banned from the US Open and fined tens of thousands of dollars.

The problem with claiming that men get away with more than women, is that the referee’s aren’t consistent. Yelling at a referee isn’t like a line call, it’s not either in or out, it’s all based on the severity of the comments and how the ref received them. The subjectiveness of violations like these is going to lead to bias no matter what.

Interestingly, Carlos Ramos, the ref who handed down Serena’s punishment, is known for being a straight shooter. He used to play tennis himself, but his love for the rules pushed him to become a ref. A New York Times article interviewed one of Ramos’s old superiors, who said that Ramos was committed to being a good ref, “He recalled the laserlike focus Ramos gave to even the lowest level game, umpiring ‘as if he were at Wimbledon.’”

Another reason this issue is being talked about so much is that it was the US Open final. Naomi Osaka is only twenty years old, and people were surprised and excited to see her make it to the final. Naomi’s underdog status made for a very entertaining match leading up to the latter half. But as the match came to a close, both competitors were in tears. Serena was expressing her frustration with the calls of the ump. Meanwhile, Naomi was coping with the crowd’s reaction to the calls of the ref and the subsequent outcome of the match.

Being twenty years old myself, I can’t imagine being booed by tens of thousands of people after winning the US Open. At the end of that match, the focus should have been on Naomi, not Serena or the referee. Ultimately it was the ref’s poor calling that was the problem, but Naomi shouldn’t have had to left her first US open win in tears.

I do not necessarily agree with the calls made against Serena, but I am also not fully convinced the calls were made because she is a black woman. Given the reputation of Ramos and the inconsistency of tennis reffing on the whole, it is difficult to confidently say he made the calls out of bias. Regardless of if Serena deserved the punishment, both men and women in professional tennis should be held accountable for their words and actions.

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