Martina Navratilova on the US Open drama

Much has been written about Serena Williams’s outburst during US Open final match again Naomi Osaka, with some defending her action saying that there is a double standard in tennis in which women are judged more harshly than men. (I expressed my own opinion here and here.) Another tennis legend Martina Navratilova, a tough competitor but always gracious in victory and defeat and who is deeply familiar with the rules and culture of the sport, has written a carefully argued op-ed in the New York Times where she says that that argument misses the point.

To recap: The trouble began when early in the second set, Ms. Williams was given a warning for coaching. This one is on her coach: Patrick Mouratoglou was using both hands to motion to Ms. Williams to move forward and got called on it. While it is true that illegal coaching is quite common and that most coaches do it, it’s also true that despite what many commentators have said following Saturday’s events, they are called on it quite frequently and that most of the time, players just shrug it off and know that going forward, they and their coaches now need to behave, because the next infraction will cost them a point. The player is responsible for his or her coach’s conduct. And it is actually irrelevant whether the player saw or heard whatever instructions were given; either way, it is still an infraction.

Ms. Williams opted to argue about this: She insisted that she didn’t cheat, she wasn’t coached, and therefore she shouldn’t have been docked. But it doesn’t matter whether she knew she was receiving coaching. She was being coached, as Mr. Mouratoglou admitted after the match, and whether she knew it or not is moot. So at this stage, she had been given a warning — one that couldn’t be dismissed retroactively — and had smashed her racket, an automatic violation. Mr. Ramos, effectively, had no choice but to dock her a point.

It’s worth noting that Ms. Williams has some serious scar tissue when it comes to this particular tournament. In 2004, she was subjected to some notoriously awful line-calling and umpiring in a match against Jennifer Capriati. In 2009, she suffered a self-inflicted wound when, at match point in a semifinal against Kim Clijsters, she lost her temper at a line judge, leading to a point penalty that resulted in her automatically losing the match. In 2011, in a final against Samantha Stosur, Ms. Williams lost a point for yelling, “Come on!” after hitting a forehand that appeared to help her regain her momentum in a game she’d been losing. She went on to berate the umpire, calling her “unattractive inside,” and was hit with another code violation.

It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.

Navratilova has gone on from being a wonderful player to watch to becoming an ambassador for tennis and an elder statesperson, while not being afraid to take strong stands, such as calling out former tennis champion Margaret Smith Court for her racist and homophobic comments. She is someone to be taken seriously.


  1. says

    I’m mostly with Navratilova. Coaching from the stands is illegal, and I don’t think that whether or not Williams noticed the coaching has any bearing on any possible justification for the extreme behavior of Williams.

    However, I don’t think that observing the double standard “misses the point”. The double standard is the point for all those who aren’t players of women’s tennis: men’s players and all non-players alike.

    Tennis has two sets of rules about behavior. Williams’ coach clearly violated the rule on coaching. Williams clearly violated the set of rules on decorum that apply to women players.

    The question isn’t whether coaching should be made legal. Rather there are two important and separate questions we must now address, one for organized tennis and one for society at large.

    The first question is whether tennis will continue to embrace a sexist double standard moving forward. If it does, then the governing bodies of tennis deserve far more scorn than Williams. If it does not, then either what Willams did must be judged acceptable moving forward as women’s tennis embraces the standards applied to men, or men’s behavior must be judged unacceptable at times and for reasons that they haven’t been judged unacceptable in the past.

    (I’m personally of the opinion that men should be held accountable under the rules that now only apply to women, rather than women getting away with things now unacceptable for women but permissible under the rules and traditions of the men’s game.)

    The second question is whether the media and society at large has been fair to Williams. On the whole, I would say not. Navratilova is focussed on the individual behavior of Williams, but in placing her attention on the individual she misses a great deal that’s important. She only glancingly addresses the history of bad behavior by men players and she misses touching on questions regarding media and social treatment altogether.

    I think Navratilova’s is a fine statement about the behavior of Williams and about the women’s game. As a statement about all the issues raised here, it falls disappointingly short.

  2. Curt Sampson says

    The more I think about it, the more I think this article is not “carefully argued” and not only “falls…short,” but is part of the problem.

    It spends a lot of time arguing that what Williams should not behave in that way. I fail to see the use of that: who out there is arguing that what Williams did is ok? Spending yet more column inches on “woman tennis player did a bad thing and that’s bad” serves no good purpose whatsoever.

    Then it goes on to say that we shouldn’t be giving the men the extra privileges that women don’t get. Sure, again true. But the fact is, we are at the moment doing that, and there’s no indication of how or when that will stop. And in the meantime, the women suffer.

    This is exactly how structural oppression works. You say something or other isn’t acceptable, come up with a punishment and a system for pushing people, and then you apply it selectively. And when the people being oppressed by this complain, you say they’re being treated as they should, the issue is that someone else is getting away with something they shouldn’t, and that should be fixed. But you don’t fix it, you just carry on in the same way.

    Get on with actually holding men in tennis to the same standard, and then can you go after women in the same way. But I honestly don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not in the next decade or two. And in the meantime, the women suffer.

  3. Serena Ramirez says

    Point 1
    Serena Williams knows better. She is not new to the sport nor the rules. She should not be given special treatment because she is a mother, a highly ranked or well known player or celebrity. She was not being treated more harshly than any other player, female or male, large or small, black, white or otherwise. The rules should be no different whether a quarter, semi or final. Her coach was signaling from the stands which was coaching whether she was looking or not. This is a code violation. The is the first code violation so a verbal warning is given.
    Point 2
    Serena Williams smashed her racket. This is a code violation. The is the second code violation so a point is taken away.
    Point 3.
    Serena Williams engaged in a verbal attack on the umpire. This is a code violation. The is the third ode violation so a game is taken away.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve read lots of anecdotes and assertions, but I haven’t seen much actual data about gender differences in disciplinary actions in tennis. All I’ve been able to come up with was this, from the New York Times. Even accounting for more qualifying spots and more sets per match for men, they get significantly more fines for racket abuse, unsportsmanlike conduct, and verbal abuse than women. That is curious, but it may be that it is primarily the top-ranked men who get preferential treatment. That wouldn’t surprise me, but it would be nice to have a similar kind of comparison for, say, the top ten seeds.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Naomi Osaka is the first Japanese woman to get to the final of a Grand Slam, much less win one.

    Naomi Osaka beat Serena Williams 6-3 6-2 in the Miami Open in March, and she was comfortably beating her in the US Open Final before Williams started cheating.

    I’ve read lots of anecdotes and assertions, but I haven’t seen much actual data

    This issue involves a woman who is black (and a massive multimillionaire, but for goodness sake let’s not mention that). What’s important is the narrative, not the facts. It is sufficient to baldly assert without evidence things like:

    Mano: “some defending her action saying that there is a double standard” (comment aimed at the “some”, not MS)
    Crip Dyke: “The double standard is the point”
    Curt Sampson: ” the fact is, we are at the moment [ giving the men the extra privileges]” (my emphasis)

    Textbook begging the question.

    The BBC have covered this in “More or Less”, their news stats show:

    The main points:
    -- Is there any data to support the idea of a double standard?
    -- Short answer: no.
    -- Longer answer: you’d need to much effort to work it out properly, and nobody’s ever done it.
    -- There IS data on whether men are penalised more often or more harshly -- there’s just no data on whether it’s deserved.
    -- The unarguable fact is that in professional tennis women are NOT penalised more than men. (Data on more than 3000 matches).
    -- Penalty points are awarded about once every 39 Grand Slam matches between men, and about once every 82 Grand Slam matches between women. Men are penalised MORE THAN TWICE AS OFTEN in Grand Slams. (Cue response suggesting this is because men cheat more often)
    -- The point is made there is no data on behaviour that went unpunished, or whether any of the penalties were deserved.
    -- Forfeiting a game is so rare the stats don’t say much, but no fewer than FIVE male players were docked a game last year alone, and it has happened to the top male players. McEnroe was DQ’d in 1990 at the Australian Open. In 1989 Connors was playing in the US Open against Edberg and he was docked a game. Didn’t cost him the match, and he went on to win, but it can’t have helped.
    -- Carlos Ramos is a known hardass who’s given violations against Jokovich, Nadal and Murray.

    None of this proves women aren’t treated differently, but the angry cheat has done an excellent job of mobilising a LOT of defenders (including here) who take her assertion. The available data suggests the opposite of what she said, but she has the race card AND the gender card in her hand and she played them hard.

    The first two posts here use the word “Williams” ten times, and the word “Osaka” not at all. Serena’s all anyone wants to talk about -- and that’s pretty good for a cheating loser. I wonder whether her sponsors are pleased…

  6. Holms says

    I wonder if those that got into such a high dudgeon in PZ’s thread have any interest in the actual stats of penalties.

  7. says

    Most speak of the US Open strictly in isolation, ignoring that since the start of the year:

    * Williams was subjected to six “random” drug tests (no other player more than twice)

    * Her WTA ranking was taken away from her, as if pregnancy were a personal failing

    * She was denied clothing designed for a medical purpose after nearly dying a second time (deep vein thrombosis, in 2011 and 2018)

    Her actions are improperly being compared to other tennis players. Orlando Brown (1970-2011) makes for a better comparison, someone who was already at risk of losing his eyesight, with a family history of it. During a game, he was hit in the eye by a referee’s penalty flag. In an understandable state of emotion, Brown pushed the official off his feet to the ground -- not violently, but enough to cause the official to fall.

    Brown was and Williams is in a stressful situations not of their making, and their actions should be weighed carefully compared when judging compared to others’ actions.

  8. says

    A follow up, to prevent too many links on one post:

    Serena Williams may be singled out for drug testing. The question is why.

    Serena Williams’ return from pregnancy sparks seeding debate at Miami Open

    Miami Open tournament director James Blake — once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world — doesn’t think it’s fair to punish Williams so severely for taking time off tennis to become a mother, and he’s making it clear as Williams prepares for Wednesday’s match.

    “It makes sense to protect someone who goes on maternity leave,” Blake said, via BBC. “The rules should help her get the benefit of an easier draw and a better path. These kind of things shouldn’t happen. She has won this title so many times that she needs protection. It’s not as if she left because of injury and lost her passion for the game. She had a kid, which we should all be celebrating, so when she comes back there should be a grace period where she can still be seeded.”

    Forbes: Why Banning Serena Williams’ Catsuit Is Not Smart, Sports-Wise Or Medically

    The Guardian (2011): Serena Williams reveals how blood clot left her ‘on my death bed’

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Intransitive @8:

    Williams was subjected to six “random” drug tests (no other player more than twice)

    It would seem that Williams was being target-tested, not just random-tested;

    The WADA guide lists various factors that may influence target testing by national agencies like USADA. Several appear to apply to Williams: athletes at the highest level of a sport (23 Grand Slam singles titles), athletes recovering from injury (shoulder issue), athletes in the later stages of their career (36 years old), and athletes returning to active participation after retirement (in this case, an extended break related to maternity leave).

    These factors suggest that USADA was target testing Williams in accordance with WADA standards.

    Her WTA ranking was taken away from her, as if pregnancy were a personal failing

    No, the ranking is based on a last-52-weeks accumulation of points. I’d be hugely surprised if Williams was the first to suffer loss of ranking due to pregnancy. Surely she would have known about this before taking leave.

    Of course the catsuit nonsense was just stupidity on the part of the French Federation, but the way you frame it is silly, as though they were putting Williams’ life at risk. There is no ban on wearing compression legwear.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Williams is in a stressful situations not of [her] making

    I do think it’s a scandal the way white people abduct young black girls, train them for years, then force them at gunpoint to play tennis for our amusement. It’s even worse when they bribe the girl’s coaches to break the rules, so that the games become more stressful for them, and force them to play against younger, fitter, better players even into their late thirties and after pregnancy and injury.

    Oh, hang that’s… bullshit, isn’t it? Bullshit that denies Williams agency over and responsibility for her own actions and choices.

    And as for “as if pregnancy were a personal failing” disingenuous BULLSHIT. The tennis authorities do not regard pregnancy as a “personal failing”. They do, however, regard not playing fucking tennis at all as a “personal failing” if you want to get or keep a world ranking. The fact this needs spelling out tells you all you need to know about the quality of thinking going among people coming to Williams’ defence.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    Kreator @12: From The Root:

    Tennis is a white man’s sport.

    Serena Williams’ loss at the the U.S. Open, and her subsequent fine of $17,000 —$10,000 for verbal abuse, which was the largest individual fine the US Open has ever seen—proves it.

    John McEnroe, 1987 US Open final:

    Due to a series of outbursts during his third-round match against Slobodan Zivojinovic Saturday, McEnroe drew a $17,500 fine and a two-month suspension.

    He accumulated a $7,500 fine because of his verbal outbursts in the match, and $10,000 was automatically added because it’s the second time this year that McEnroe has reached the $7,500 limit in fines, said Ken Farrar, the chief supervisor of Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC).

    Never mind the 1987 to 2018 conversion. So, you think black journalists should be exempt from fact-checking? That seems like a rather condescending double standard.

  12. Kreator says

    @Rob Grigjanis:

    Oh, a $500 difference, what a scandal! I guess that immediately invalidates everything else, just because.

    So, you think black journalists should be exempt from fact-checking? That seems like a rather condescending double standard.

    And just so you know, this kind of “gotcha” (which basically boils down to “you’re the real racist!) is a favorite argument of white supremacists. In other words be careful, you’re starting to quack like a duck…

    Meanwhile, Australian athletes donned full-body blackface to impersonate the Williams sisters. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Kreator @15: It’s not a scandal, it’s shoddy journalism. Note also that the author says that Serena losing the match is also part of their “proof”, as though it had been stolen from her. If you watched the match, you’d know she was getting her arse kicked by Osaka.

    Ah yes, I was expecting the “favourite argument of white supremacists” bullshit, because that’s what lazy idiots like you do; any criticism is simply dismissed by “that’s what the bad guys say, so watch it, lest you be identified as one!”.

    There is racism in tennis, because racism permeates this society. But a lot of what’s been said in defence of Williams’ behaviour has been reflexive, transparent, intellectually dishonest crap. Does the fact of racism mean we should give a pass to the crap? If you really think so, you could at least have the courage to admit it.

  14. Kreator says

    Ah yes, I was expecting the “favourite argument of white supremacists” bullshit, because that’s what lazy idiots like you do; any criticism is simply dismissed by “that’s what the bad guys say, so watch it, lest you be identified as one!”.

    In other words, you knew that you were writing something that could have been interpreted as racist, but decided to post it anyway. That’s even worse, it shows how little you actually care.

    Does the fact of racism mean we should give a pass to the crap? If you really think so, you could at least have the courage to admit it.

    No. What I’m sure of is that most people would be giving this “crap” a pass if it had come from a white man. But you know what? I’ll humor you. I think we should be softer, yes, and I think that makes me the better person.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    What I’m sure of

    … in the teeth of the evidence…

    is that most people would be giving this “crap” a pass if it had come from a white man.

    Already proven false. Moving on…

    I think we should be softer, yes, and I think that makes me the better person.

    Better person? Keep telling yourself that. Shit choice for a referee or umpire of a sport with a set of rules professional athletes are expected to abide by? Undoubtedly.

    Also “hey, Australians are racist!” is neither original nor surprising as an observation. What do you want, a fucking cookie for that startling insight? You’ll get no arguments about that from me, but I fail to see how the fact of Australian racism in any way excuses or mitigates the behaviour of the angry cheat at the US Open.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Kreator @17:

    In other words, you knew that you were writing something that could have been interpreted as racist…

    …by idiots like you, yes. I try not to let the predictable responses of idiots determine what I post.

  17. Kreator says

    OK. You just keep hanging out and sharing opinions with your friends the rape apologist banned at Pharyngula (sonofrojblake) and Holms the transphobe. You’re in great company!

  18. sonofrojblake says

    the rape apologist banned at Pharyngula

    Banned at Pharyngula, yes. Banned, not for being a “rape apologist” (wtf?), but for pointing out the massive hypocrisy inherent in writing a blog post titled something like “Amazon is evil” railing against their business and employment practices, while ON THE SAME PAGE having a link shilling for your own for-profit book… on Amazon. That struck a nerve in the arm holding the banhammer, as well it might, since no actual arguments could be marshalled against it beyond the incredibly weak “I have a responsibility to promote my work” and the later, retrospective provision of a link to a different, presumably slightly less evil retailer. It’s a matter of verifiable fact that that was the last post I was allowed to make there and thus the reason I was banned from commenting on that blog, and I’m not ashamed of it. Odd of you to bring it up.

    Isn’t it interesting how far we’ve strayed from the point?

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