Serena Williams argues with the chair umpire during a match against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during the women’s finals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Serena Williams, a 23-time grand slam champion and mother, is a consistent picture of grace and perseverance. Even Roger Federer has said she’s the greatest player of all time.
Yesterday’s reactions to Williams’ U.S. Open final match were swift and passionate. Yet I wonder: where are the voices of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) male players after the “power play” (according to an op-ed in The Washington Post) from the chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Williams needs your voice; we all do.
During yesterday’s U.S. Open final match, Ramos issued a code violation for coaching. (For those who don’t know the ins and outs of the game, this particular “code violation” alleged that Williams was being improperly coached during the game.) Williams approached the bench to say she wasn’t cheating and demanded an apology. After making a brief surge, her opponent Naomi Osaka produced a critical serve break and Williams broke her racket in frustration from that controversial call. Ramos issued another violation, and Williams called the referee a “thief.” (I can promise you John McEnroe said much worse for code violations, and ESPN’s Mike Greenberg agreed via Twitter.) Williams’ response when confronted by the line judge: “This is not fair. Think of how many other men who do much worse than that.” And she’s completely right. The referee’s supervisors’ response? To walk away. He turned his back on Williams.
The stadium stood squarely on Williams’ side. Fans around the world set Twitter afire with outrage and indignation. Retired tennis player and ESPN broadcaster Chris Evert said, “Calling the umpire a thief, while we hear mostly men say four letter words, I don’t think that warranted a game.” We heard outrage from players including Melanie Oudin, Kristina Mladenovic, and Jessie Pegula.
But, other than Andy Roddick’s tweet admitting that he’d done worse without getting a penalty, we did not hear the voices of men weigh in. We’ve seen no commentary from Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi. We haven’t heard a peep from John McEnroe, a champion who has a notorious past of code violations, and I would imagine he has something to say on this issue.
Tennis is Williams’ work. The court is her office and the racquet her tool. The match was a case study in the no-win situation that women face, often on their own because very few people come to their defense. And if they stand up for themselves, if they bring fire (as athletes are trained to do), if they ask if gender played any role in how they were wronged, women often are penalized for that very behavior as well. This becomes an isolating cycle grinding on day after day, year after year. In addition to Williams losing the match, her opponent Osaka was robbed of the joy of celebrating a victory because the spectators were pointing out the injustice with boos that likely could be heard from miles away. (Williams stopped the ceremony to ask the crowd to celebrate Osaka’s victory, showing incredible sportsmanship.)
It’s hard enough to battle your way to the top of your career against all odds, just as Williams has. But it’s another thing to stand alone in this without the support of all your colleagues, especially those who sometimes have a stronger voice in the sport, raising the issue as well. Where are the men of the USTA – and Williams’ peers across the world – and why aren’t they calling out the unjust double standard of women and men in this sport? While the USTA is showcasing the “SheIs” Initiative during the U.S. Open to highlight their commitment to gender equality, why is Andy Murray the only man involved in the campaign? Also, why is he doing so by “representing fathers with daughters” instead of standing alongside the current women of the sport the campaign is supporting.
Just two weeks ago, the U.S. Open issued a code violation to Alizé Cornet when she tried to correct her backward shirt during a match. Male tennis players are allowed to take their shirts off on the court at any point during breaks. The organization later retracted the violation, but the initial violation revealed the double standards. Consider also the now-infamous banning of match-wear selected by Williams that the French Open deemed not to show “respect to the game or the place,” it is clear that tennis officials intend to police women’s bodies and hold women to a different standard than men. Work is work, and and women shouldn’t have to be told what to wear to work or how to act. Men rarely receive the same feedback. (And, again, I would ask: where are men’s voices asking tennis officials to stop this outdated behavior?)
Men, we need your voices. We need you to speak up when you see a double standard. We need you to say something when you hear a sexist comment. We need you to stand by us in outrage and demand change. I remember walking out of a meeting where I had been the only woman and a man constantly talked over me and refused to let me finish my analysis of the legal argument. Once I was safely down the hall and alone, a male colleague came up to me and said quietly “I’m sorry that you didn’t get to finish your comment; You shouldn’t have been interrupted.” I told him I wished he’d said that in the meeting in the company of men.
The fact is simple: the only path to equality for women requires participation from all genders. Speak up, men. Your voices matter.
I can’t imagine how it will feel the next time Williams steps out on the court with the U.S. Open finals and frustrations in the back of her mind. I can only guess that she’ll use this disappointment as fuel to be better and stronger at her job, while raising a family and climbing back to the No. 1 ranking she held for so long before the birth of her daughter and a pulmonary embolism. (Because don’t forget, Williams was summarily downgraded from a No. 1 world ranking to No. 453 after her leave with baby Alexis Olympia.) To me, that’s the ultimate portrait of grace and perseverance that we should all support.