Serena Williams’ loss to Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s U.S. Open final has sparked a conversation surrounding sexism in the sport.
Williams was fined $17,000 for three code violations during the game: one for verbal abuse of the umpire, one for being warned for coaching and one for breaking her racket.
Though the fine hardly makes a dent in Williams’ runner-up prize money of $1.85 million, it sends the message that women in tennis are penalized for acting in ways that men are not, and women of color are held to an especially high standard.
Williams called umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” after she received a point penalty for smashing her racket, prompting Ramos to dole out a game penalty ruling for verbal abuse and hand the game to Osaka.
It’s not as though Williams is the first player to “verbally abuse” an umpire, if what she did was anything close to that. Former U.S. tennis star Andy Roddick tweeted, “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty.” Men like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi are regularly excused for losing their tempers on court, even seen as endearing because of it, while women like Williams are demonized and seen as aggressive.
When men lose their tempers, it’s not out of the ordinary. It’s almost to be expected. They aren’t called “furious,” as Williams was labeled in a Daily Telegraph headline. Instead, they’re outspoken, bold or passionate.
Williams has been called a “sore loser” for responding with frustration and anger to the loss. This kind of response is not only justified, though, but necessary. If prominent figures like Williams do not speak out against sexism in the tennis industry, who will?
The culture of tennis hasn’t evolved with present society. Sport officials are stuck in a past mindset about the way players should act, present themselves and be treated. This is why we are seeing these cases of blatant sexism, cases of clothing restrictions and unusually harsh rulings and cases that are jeopardizing women’s careers.
President of the French Tennis Federation Bernard Giudicelli banned Williams from wearing her “Black Panther”-style catsuit, designed specifically to help prevent blood clots, at the French Open in August. Giudicelli implied Williams was disrespecting the game of tennis by wearing the outfit.
The catsuit was designed for medical purposes after Williams went through life-threatening childbirth last September. Implying that wearing the suit would change Williams’ respect for the game is ridiculous, but for people to expect that Williams have more respect for the game than her own body and health shows how female players are held to illogical standards that nobody should be able to meet.
Ironically, Williams said when the suit was first designed that it presented an opportunity to inspire women and kids to have confidence and believe in themselves. Instead, what girls learned from watching Williams be stripped of her attire was that no matter how hard they work and how much they achieve, a man can always tell them that what they’re wearing is inappropriate.
So why hasn’t tennis changed after all this time? These arbitrary rules that damage women’s careers are still in place because the sport is difficult to infiltrate. From the entry level, tennis has hard-to-reach requirements in terms of club fees and lesson costs. Called the “game for rich,” the sport is guarded by the white elite, who keep old mindsets in place. People who stick out, like Williams, get struck down.
This move is not fair to either Williams or Osaka. Osaka’s first major win will forever be marred by this incident, and she shouldn’t have to feel guilty for that. Fortunately, players and non-players alike have responded with such outrage that umpires and officials must recognize incidents like this will no longer be ignored. The sport must move forward and look to accommodating everyone equally.