It seems absurd that Serena Williams should still be fighting anything.
How could she be? She, who was anointed by Nike in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open as a champion beyond the confines of a single tournament, not to mention a mother-warrior par excellence. Who has won 23 Grand Slam titles and taken on all the rest of it: the legions of adoring fans, the magazine covers, the sponsorships, the fame, the gravitas. That she is the greatest athlete ever is less a pot-stirring ad campaign than a truism now. It feels preposterous that she should feel that the system—the one she has dominated like no one in tennis history—is working against her, or that, for someone of her singular accomplishments, bickering over points or games could be anything more than a question of sportsmanship.
And yet, as Williams lost in two sets to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s U.S. Open final, thanks in part to a trio of deeply contentious decisions by chair umpire Carlos Ramos, she framed her outrage as the latest development in an ongoing battle. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” she said after the match. During the trophy presentation, both players wept. It did not feel like anyone’s victory.
We will talk about that ugly end to the Open for a long time, along with what it meant for Williams, whose loss has kept her for now from tying Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record, and the 20-year-old Osaka, whose brilliant play against her idol was overshadowed by the tumult of Williams’s loss. We will talk about the specifics of Ramos’s judgments as well: the warning early in the second set when Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, motioned to her from the the player’s box to indicate she should move in toward the net; the point penalty assessed later in the set after Williams broke her racket following Osaka breaking serve; and the final code violation for verbal abuse after Williams repeatedly demanded an apology from Ramos for the initial coaching violation and called him a “thief.” Ramos docked her a game, and she was later issued a $17,000 fine for the sum of the violations.
The specifics, though, matter here less than what the incident tells us about the state of the women’s game—namely that it is broken, and that its rulemakers and enforcers continue to prop up a system that skews undeniably toward the sexist and racist. Williams, the most lauded player in the history of the sport, is, in fact, still fighting, just as she has had to over and over and over again at every stage of her career. It is a disgrace. It is ongoing.
Williams is tested for prohibited drugs by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency much more often than her competitors—at a rate more than double that of other top American women players, according to a June analysis by Deadspin. She has been the subject of years of thinly veiled criticism over her body and dress; last month, it was the president of the French Tennis Federation who singled out the so-called catsuit she wore to this year’s French Open—an outfit that was designed with the express goal of helping prevent a recurrence of the blood clots that nearly killed her after she gave birth last year—as something that lacked “respect” for “the game and the place” and would thus be banned in future tournaments. It’s not just Williams who faces this backward policing, of course: Earlier in the tournament, France’s Alizé Cornet was given a code violation by the chair umpire of her own match after she had the gall to briefly remove a shirt that she’d mistakenly put on backward, despite the fact that male players routinely change their shirts during changeovers.
Cornet’s violation drew so much anger that the U.S. Open apologized—and issued what it said was a clarification, that such an outfit change would, in fact, be permitted going forward. “The WTA has always been and always will be a pioneer for women and women’s sports,” read a statement issued by the Open.
This is too often the way the sport has operated: persist with dreadfully misguided rules about how female players ought to behave or look, ruthlessly enforce them, and adjust only when the outcry has grown too loud to ignore. “This is not fair,” Williams at one point pleaded, seemingly on the verge of tears. “This has happened to me too many times.”
“For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark,” Williams said Saturday. “He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind, but I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal coordination—to be able to take our shirt off on the court without getting a fine. This is outrageous.”
Osaka’s victory will, regrettably, always have this asterisk, her dominant play reduced to a secondary story because Ramos felt it was up to him to repeatedly intervene in matters that often go ignored in the men’s game. Eventual men’s champ Novak Djokovic, for one, struggled in an earlier round against John Millman before calling up to his coach, “I need tablets”—an apparent request for medical aid that was promptly delivered sans penalty and with coverage noting that the residents of his box were “bemused.” The ever-mercurial Nick Kyrgios had a U.S. Open that included a mid-match pep talk from an umpire.
Few would find either a request for hydration or the occasional colorful outburst a decisive event in tennis—and yet on the women’s side, it continues to be treated as such. No less an authority than Billie Jean King spoke out against Williams’s treatment over the weekend. “Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself,” King wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on.” Tennis’s international leadership purports to be concerned about the future of the game, particularly on the women’s side. If we learn nothing else from the U.S. Open’s regrettable end, let it be that outrage can’t be the only thing governing a sport.