Inexplicable lapse by Serena Williams [UPDATED TO INCLUDE VIDEO]

Serena Williams is a tennis phenomenon, dominating the sport for two decades even as she had a baby during that period. She will easily go down in history as one of the greatest tennis players ever. But earlier today, the 36-year old lost the final of the US Open 3-6,4-6 to 20-year Naomi Osaka for whom this was her first major final. But what was noteworthy was how ugly the match was.

With the score 1-1 in the second set, Williams was given a violation when the chair umpire ruled that she was being coached from the stands, which is against the rules. She denied that this had happened but this charge of cheating clearly rankled her because she kept expressing her anger at the umpire. When she smashed her racket in frustration after losing her serve to make the score 3-2 still in her favor, this on top of the earlier violation resulted in her being docked a point so that Osaka started the next set with a lead of 15-0 and she then went on to win the game to even the score at 3-3.

Williams got even angrier at the umpire and called him a liar and a thief which resulted in her being penalized an entire game for verbal abuse, giving a 4-3 lead to Osaka who then went on to win the set 6-4 and thus also the match.

Some in the crowd, which was heavily in favor of Williams, booed during the presentation at the end but, although in tears, Williams recovered enough to be gracious towards her opponent, saying:

“I don’t want to be rude. She play well. This is her first grand slam. Let’s make this the best moment we can. Let’s give everyone credit where it’s due. Congratulations Naomi. No more booing.”

Athletes who perform at this high level are often under great pressure and since they tend to be intense people, they can get angry and frustrated when things don’t go their way. But Williams is a veteran who has been in high-pressure situations many, many times before and she would have known the consequences of her actions. Usually they know just how far they can go to express displeasure without incurring penalties and then put it behind them and continue. Losing an entire game because of a penalty at such a critical stage seems like an enormous lapse in judgment on her part.


  1. Jean says

    I’m not sure you got this completely right on where to assign the blame. I thought this sounded like a harsh punishment and had a quick look at what google proposed on this and it seems to me that there is agreement that the umpire was unusually harsh. There seems to be a double standard with what men can get away with compared to women and the fact that Williams is black may also have played a role.

  2. sarah00 says

    I agree with Jean. It’s not at all inexplicable. In fact it’s entirely explicable. I don’t follow tennis closely but it seems like there’s been an awful lot of (not so) microaggressions against Serena Williams throughout her recent matches, her catsuit being a major one and I’m not at all surprised she had enough.
    As a not great analogy, imagine you’re on a flight. The person behind you keeps kicking your seat. It’s not a massive kick but it’s enough to disturb you. You’ve ignored them. You’ve politely asked them to stop. But they keep on kicking. You’ve finally managed to get to sleep but they start kicking again so you stand up, turn around, and shout at them to “stop fucking kicking my seat”. To everyone around you it looks like you’ve overreacted and have been incredibly rude to a fellow passenger but what’s really happened if you’ve done everything in your power to diffuse the situation and nothing’s worked and all you want is to be given some basic respect and allowed to get through your flight in peace.
    The way the analogy breaks down is that we’ve all been witnesses to tennis officials kicking Serena’s seat and have turned a blind eye. There’s also the fact that infused in Serena’s treatment is a whole heap of sexism and racism that can’t be ignored yet seems to have been in so much of the commentary on this incident.
    (for some reason paragraph breaks weren’t showing up, hence the “.”s)

  3. John Morales says

    Was recently reading about this in Oz news:

    So… the umpire clearly applied the applicable match rules.

    First violation, she claimed it was not coaching (her coach admitted it was, after, but said her opponent was also being coached).
    Second violation, that racket was well and truly smashed.
    Third violation, pretty sure such vehement disputation, accusations and demands merit the criterion for verbal abuse.

    Therefore, I think the argument for those who think it’s somehow not right for the match rules to be applied must presumably be doing so based on the idea that, since many other times such behaviour has not been applicably penalised (and I hear you, Jean and sarah00 — gender asymmetry of such discretionary enforcement of the rules of the match would not surprise me, not that I follow the game), then it is unfair to do so in this case because so doing constitutes less-preferential treatment of her than of others.

    Problem with that reasoning is that it follows that the rules should never be applied, since it is unfair to do so.

    sarah00, I find it hard to feel sorry for a (very in each case) wealthy, famous and healthy person who was (you suggest) driven into a petulant fit.

    (I did watch tennis back in the McEnroe days, didn’t feel sorry for him, either)

    Also, be aware that this platform doesn’t process the comment preview the same as the posted comment — the paragraphs do appear in the latter.

  4. John Morales says

    Also, is it in no way possible that it was her very fame (“a tennis phenomenon, dominating the sport for two decades” who “will easily go down in history as one of the greatest tennis players ever”) which led her to believe she could get away with that behaviour?

  5. Jean says

    That the violations were there is not the issue here. The point is that the punishment is very harsh and very unusual.

    There is definitely a double standard for women player and that was also demonstrated by another female player being punished for briefly removing her shirt to put is the correct way around because she had realised that she had put it the wrong way. How many time have you seen men removing their shirt without any consequences? Would anyone even think of complaining about it?

    “Proper” behaviour and “proper” appearance is definitely policed differently for men and women in tennis. Famous, rich spoiled people do think they can get away with things and have fits when they don’t. But let’s not make that the main issue when a black woman get more shit for doing so because she is a black woman.

  6. John Morales says


    “Proper” behaviour and “proper” appearance is definitely policed differently for men and women in tennis.

    Indeed. Your example is dispositive.

    But (presuming the rule violations for which she was penalised are the same as those applicable to men) the example at hand is about the inferred motive for purported discretionary application of penalties for rule violations, not about decorum.

    So, quite speculative, IMO.

    Famous, rich spoiled people do think they can get away with things and have fits when they don’t. But let’s not make that the main issue when a black woman get more shit for doing so because she is a black woman.

    It’s not the main issue, but surely a pretty potent factor in mitigating her blackness.

    As Mano noted, this outburst is fairly atypical for her — are you suggesting she really has been singled out for penalties over her career, rather than in this particular instance, and only now exploded?

  7. sonofrojblake says

    One thing she said to the umpire in her outbursts was “I don’t cheat to win -- I’d rather lose.”

    So… she’s happy, right?

    From a headline: “Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou admits he was coaching during the match, although he stated that every coach does what he did during matches and called the chair umpire a hypocrite.”

    “We all cheat, she’s just pissed she got caught”. If the coach says they ALL cheat, then Williams is not in a position to claim she didn’t know he was doing it. Checking sympathy meter… still reading zero.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I think it is important to distinguish between systematic inequities in the way women and men are treated (which is very likely to be true since it is the case in almost every aspect of society) with that of going on an extended rant about them against the umpire during the game, even to the extent of calling him a liar and a thief. That is never a good idea and almost always makes the situation worse for the player. Systemic issues are best taken up after and outside games by (say) the Women’s Tennis Association. Williams should have lodged a brief protest with the umpire and even the match referee at that moment and then got her mind back to winning her match. That is not easy to do but that is what I would have expected a seasoned veteran like Williams to be able to do.

    I am reminded of the recent incident I wrote about in which the captain of the Sri Lankan team was issued a warning by the umpires for what may or may not have been an act of cheating. Like Williams, he was so incensed that he refused to let his team take the field for two hours. The umpires would have been justified in ruling that his team had defaulted the match in favor of the opponents but instead issued a small interim penalty and the game continued. But afterwards, the international cricket body suspended and forbade him from playing in international games for some time.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    There is a problem. The problem is the other umpires, the ones NOT enforcing the rules of the game. And those at the top in thrall to “stars” (all men). It’s obviously bad in tennis, but it’s not unique to tennis. Football is much worse.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Good article from the Guardian with another view: thanks to Wiliams’s emotional incontinence, nobody is talking about Osaka, the 20-year old who outplayed the best female tennis player ever. The attention should be on the woman who maintained her professional composure and won the first Grand Slam tournament she entered, against her hero who had home-soil advantage, becoming the first Japanese person to win one ever. Instead Williams is stealing all the attention.

  11. file thirteen says

    I have always idolised Serena. Unfortunately this incident has permanently lessened her status in my eyes. I think the in-match penalties were fully justified, not excessive, and although I appreciate her final statement of good sportsmanship, that alone isn’t sufficient to make up for her petulance beforehand. I hope she makes a proper and public apology for her behaviour.

    It’s Naomi I feel for. She played well and deserved her win, and had the shine stripped from it. She could well have won anyway even if Serena hadn’t suffered any penalties. It was in no way Naomi’s fault that Serena couldn’t control herself.

    Serena’s coach’s admission that he was trying to cheat just shows how necessary it is for umpires to crack down on this. If players can’t learn to respect the umpire they will have to reap the consequences. And that comment makes Serena look like a total fool.

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