Serena Williams vents at umpire Carlos Ramos during Saturday’s heated US Open final – Getty Images North America
Imagine a sport where a top player could unilaterally decide to ban an umpire from officiating their matches.
Imagine a sport where an event would alter its schedule to accommodate a player returning from a 15-month doping ban.
Imagine a sport where stars are clapped at the beginning and end of press conferences by supposedly impartial observers.
Welcome to tennis – where the idea that no-one is bigger than the sport is made to look more and more laughable with every passing year. Those above examples pertain to Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer, but there are others who are similarly indulged.
Take the tennis authorities’ response to the Serena Williams furore. You’ll be familiar with what happened during Saturday’s US Open final against Naomi Osaka by now, but just to recap: umpire Carlos Ramos accurately applied the letter of the law and gave Williams three code violations. The final one was handed out for verbal abuse after Williams called Ramos “a thief” and “a liar” and carried with it an automatic game penalty.
During and the match Williams accused Ramos of sexism, and afterwards she added: “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things… For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.”
No-one can deny Williams the right to describe her sensations in that moment, or dismiss the sexism that she felt – least of all a man like myself.
What I can do though is question why leading tennis governing bodies have decided to publicly support Williams’ sexism claims in such a way that throws Ramos – a vastly experienced and respected official- under a bus.
“I would say last night is unfortunate,” Katrina Adams, the president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), told ESPN on Sunday. “We have to have consistency, because when you look at what the women, in this case Serena, is feeling, we watch the guys do this all the time. They are badgering the chair umpires on the changeover. Nothing happens.
Adams went on to prescribe how Ramos should have officiated the match. “A line could have been drawn, but when you look at Carlos in this situation, it’s a judgment call to give that last penalty because she called him a thief. They’ve been called a lot more. [He could have said]: ‘Hey, we’re getting out of hand here, let’s tone it down.’ I think he would have [said that to a male player].”
Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), added: “The WTA believes there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night.”
To be clear: Sexism is rife in tennis, and is a subject I have written about on numerous occasions.
But of all the innumerable instances of it taking place, Saturday’s events feel like an extraordinary time for the USTA and WTA to come out so strongly.
Where was the USTA’s strong response to the Indian Wells’ CEO Raymond Moore saying two years ago that: “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport?”
Where has the WTA’s crusade been for more equitable scheduling of male and female players on the show courts at grand slams?
Why if the WTA is so committed to stamping out sexism did it a run a poll during Wimbledon last year asking people to vote for the best dressed woman at the tournament?
And let’s imagine for a moment what their response would have been if rather than Williams making the complaint it was a barely known unseeded player. It’s fair to say it would have been somewhere between non-existent and nowhere near as stringent.
But this being Williams, the goalposts are moved. It makes sense of course – for events like the US Open and organisations like the WTA superstars like Williams are their lifeblood. The USTA must be especially fearful that Williams will turn her back on the US Open after this latest controversy, which would be a commercial disaster for the tournament.
Williams’ (R) confrontation with the umpire overshadowed the win of Naomi Osaka (L) Credit: AFP
But in bending over backwards to protect their biggest stars, these organisations – who claim they are calling out hypocrisy – are in reality exposing their own double standards.
And doing so has consequences. First there is the risk that they devalue the fight against sexism by choosing this as an example to publicise the issue. Too many observers will roll their eyes at what is a far from clear-cut case that masks how real an issue it is in tennis.
And what about the reputational and emotional damage this will have caused Ramos by so publicly questioning his integrity?
This is an official, let’s not forget, who has no history of chauvinism, sexism or misogyny, and – again checking my privilege – about whom it is extremely contentious to suggest would have dealt with the Williams incident differently had the offender been male.
The internet has been rife with examples of Ramos showing leniency towards men, but these are both selective and deceptive. Ramos is known to be a stickler for the rules, and has penalised the normally untouchable Andy Murray, Nadal and Djokovic in the past. In June in fact, Ramos gave both Djokovic and his opponent Marco Cecchinato a code violation warning for on-court coaching – precisely the offence and level of punishment that set the Williams meltdown in train on Saturday.
Secondly there isn’t too much of a precedent for players repeatedly calling Ramos “a liar” and “a thief” and questioning his integrity. As anyone who has ever played sport at any level knows, you might be able to get away with venting – even swearing – at a referee, but calling them a cheat is an absolute no-go area if you want to avoid sanction.
Publicly admonishing Ramos for being officious is a bit like the Premier League putting Mike Dean in charge of the Manchester derby and then castigating him for being overly strict. Presumably part of the reason Ramos was given the women’s final was because of his immense experience – he is the only active umpire to have overseen all four grand slam finals and the Olympics gold medal match – and healthy disregard for reputations.
A reminder: none of this is to suggest Williams’ actions were not understandable. Of course they were, in the context of what was at stake in the match, the wider context of everything she has suffered in the last year and the monumental obstacles she has had to overcome throughout her life.
But let’s also remind ourselves of something else: Ramos is an umpire not a psychologist. It is not for him in the split second of being abused to evaluate why Williams is behaving as she is and make a judgement based on that. It would also set an extremely dangerous precedent were he to do so. All he can do is penalise someone for breaking the rules, as Williams and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou undoubtedly did.
Nothing happens in isolation, and though common sense can prevail, the challenges and obstacles one has had to overcome do not make them immune from censure. Should Joey Barton have been allowed the odd dangerous tackle because he grew up in an environment where brutal violence and aggression were the norm?
Ramos is also human. Like Williams and Osaka, he too was operating under extreme pressure, with 24,000 spectators heckling him and questioning his competence. In the heat of the moment he decided – fairly – that Williams’ comments crossed the threshold for “verbal abuse”. He may also have made the split-second calculation that he might have struggled afterwards to justify why he failed to punish someone flagrantly breaching the rules.
None of what he did merited such a public dressing down. But as the tennis authorities have demonstrated over the last couple of days, the leading players can more or less act as they wish without impunity.
When looking for hypocrisy, the sport’s governing bodies might want to look a little closer to home.