It’s not about gender or race. It’s about bad sportsmanship

Naomi Osaka showed dignity and maturity under the unbelievable pressure of playing against her childhood idol Serena Williams, even while that same idol was having a major meltdown

Where was the respect towards her opponent, young Naomi Osaka, whose incredible victory was completely soured by Serena, who made it all about her?
Where was the respect towards her opponent, young Naomi Osaka, whose incredible victory was completely soured by Serena, who made it all about her?

As a lifelong feminist, it always irks me when women take a situation where they have been called out for their bad behaviour and start claiming ‘sexism’. It simply dilutes their argument, while also trivializing cases where real sexism takes place all the time. Likewise, pulling out the ‘race card’, when the situation has absolutely nothing to do with race, is also counter productive.

How can you be taken seriously when you insist that you should be treated equally, if you are going to keep making everything about the colour of your skin or your gender? People who truly believe they are on an equal footing should be able to take criticism on the chin without having to resort to playing the victim.

Even if you are not a tennis fan, by now you will probably be aware of what happened during the final of the US Open when Serena Williams completely lost her cool. It all started when she was warned once for a coaching violation (coaching is not allowed at Grand Slams) – at which point she walked over the umpire and after first claiming she had not even been looking at her coach, she added “just so you know what you saw was not coaching, he gave me a thumbs up” – so did she see his hand gestures or not, which is it? In fact, the footage of her coach clearly shows him not only coaching but giving her a brief nod, acknowledging that she had made eye contact with him.

Having lost the first set, Serena continued to play badly in the second set, and smashed her racket in frustration which is another violation, racket abuse. As she had already received her first warning, this time the umpire penalized her, docking one point. No matter, who you are, those are the rules. By now Serena was obviously fuming, went back to the umpire and stabbing her finger in his direction said, “I did not have coaching, I don’t cheat. You need to make an announcement. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right. You owe me an apology.”

The whole thing was an escalating display of unbelievably arrogant behaviour and bad judgement which, frankly, the player brought on herself

Here I must pause to ask: what does having a daughter have to do with anything? Serena was there as a professional tennis player, so her motherhood is completely irrelevant. This is another issue which sets my teeth on edge with some women, when they pull out the “I’m a mother” card. Millions of women are mothers. Che c’entra?

But she was not finished. During the changeover she felt the need to confront him again, and the tirade continued, “You are attacking my character… You are a liar… You are never going to be on my court ever again…. Say you are sorry… How dare you insinuate I was cheating… You stole a point from me. You are a thief too.”

“My” court, huh? I was not aware she had purchased the Arthur Ashe stadium.

At that point, the umpire Carlos Ramos had had enough and announced another code violation: verbal abuse, and docked her a whole game. She was incredulous, continued to argue with him and then called for the tournament referees. During her exchange with them she lamented that male players do much worse things and never get docked a game. But if you are going to shout sexism, you have to compare like with like. When one sees his track record, this particular umpire is known for being a stickler for the rules with everyone, male or female.

There are those who have criticized Ramos for not defusing the situation and calming her down. Excuse me? – that is not the role of an umpire, and when another umpire did that with another temperamental player, Australian Nick Kyrgios by actually getting down from the chair to mollycoddle him (“I am here to help you”) fellow players practically guffawed in disbelief at what was termed a bizarre ‘pep talk’.

What kind of example is she giving to young girls who look up to her, if what they saw was a grown woman hurling abuse at an umpire, which violates all tennis etiquette?

This is not Serena’s first altercation with tennis officials. Let us not forget the US Open 2009 when she threatened a line judge who called a foot fault by telling her she was going to “ram the ball down her f…… throat” – which also cost her a point and, subsequently, the match. Maybe in 20 years’ time when she looks back on her past behaviour Serena Williams will be able to be more circumspect. After all, even the enfant terrible of tennis John McEnroe now speaks differently about his notorious outbursts on court. He was interviewed 25 years after he was defaulted from the 1990 Australian Open which started with his intimidating behaviour towards a line judge, then racket abuse, and then an expletive aimed at the umpire. There was a warning, a penalty and in this case, a default of the match. He recalls how stunned he was, but admits that he probably had it coming.

Those who have come out in full support of Serena are, I feel, completely missing the point. As it played out, the whole thing was an escalating display of unbelievably arrogant behaviour and bad judgement which, frankly, the player brought on herself. Had she accepted the first warning and even the first penalty, both of which were completely justified, with a modicum of humility, she would never have been docked a whole game. She may be the greatest female player of all time, but her inability to accept the fact that she was being outplayed by a 20-year-old and was losing her grip on the match, led her to act in a way which someone who is called a ‘role model’ should never act.

What kind of example is she giving to young girls who look up to her, if what they saw was a grown woman hurling abuse at an umpire, which violates all tennis etiquette? How can we tell kids who play tennis that throwing a tantrum when a call is made against them, and breaking their racket when they are losing, is simply not done after they have watched a multiple Grand Slam winner acting the same exact way?

Above all, where was the respect towards her opponent, young Naomi Osaka, whose incredible victory was completely soured by Serena, who made it all about her? Those who follow and play tennis know that it is a mental game, and trying to throw your opponent off through psychological intimidation does sometimes work. The fact that Osaka showed such dignity and maturity under the unbelievable pressure of playing against her childhood idol, even while that same idol was having a major meltdown, makes the young Japanese player a true champion in more ways than one.

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