NEW YORK — So it starts again: All the opinions, arguments, acrimony over Serena Williams. Weren’t you sure that was all behind us?
Didn’t you take in Williams’ growth over the last five years, see her disciplined drive toward the all-time Grand Slam record? Didn’t we see her emerge the last few years as an eloquent spokesman on racial and social issues, a true heir to Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, and come to a consensus? A year ago, Williams gave birth, faced another life-threatening bout with blood clots, began life with a new daughter and husband. We agreed: All her youthful fury, all that drama, was a chapter closed. Serena had become tennis establishment.
Then came the 2018 U.S. Open final, and the consensus blew apart. By the time Williams, 36, finished up Saturday night at Flushing Meadows, she was yet again being framed—all at once—as principled or disingenuous, selfish or selfless, calculating or rash, gracious or graceless, self-effacing or self-important and, at least for one day, self-defeating. The fact that she had been utterly outplayed and lost, 6-2, 6-4, to the startlingly self-possessed, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, in other words, ranked low on the list of surprises.
No, above that you’d have to place Williams’ baroque argument with veteran chair umpire Carlos Ramos, where she called him both “liar” and “thief”; the open admission—against her emphatic denials—by Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, that he had indeed been “cheating," as Williams called it, on her behalf; and the simple fact that the greatest player ever, poised to win a historic 24th major singles title, instead stood at the center of the ugliest finish in Grand Slam history.
Consider: When, on the hastily assembled stage, ESPN commentator Tom Rinaldi announced, “Welcome to the United States Open trophy ceremony,” a full 14 seconds of screaming boos rained down on the two finalists. USTA president Katrina Adams was announced and jeered, too. Osaka stood with her visor pulled down, a hand covering her face, weeping. Williams put her arm around Osaka’s shoulder and tried comforting her, then made a short, loopy speech in which she commanded the crowd to stop its booing, wept openly, laughed, insisted that everyone be “positive," and hinted that she might never come back to the U.S. Open again.
“I’m on stage there and thinking, like, 'Of all the years to ask me to help present the trophy?' And all I can hear is the deafening boos,” said American tennis great, and commentator, Chris Evert. “That’s all I heard. I felt so bad. Think of how Naomi felt: she was sobbing. And Serena was so mad and wrapped up with herself, but part of her also wanted to comfort Naomi. I never envisioned anything like that. Finals of the U.S. Open? It was surreal.”
No, it didn’t have to be that way. Ramos, to begin with, mismanaged the Williams camp’s initial misstep. Not that the chair umpire was technically wrong: With Serena up 1-0, 40-30 in the second set, Mouratoglou gestured to Serena from the player box (TV coverage caught him urging her forward and nodding; Serena allowed, on-court, that her coach gave her a thumb’s up)—a clear code violation. But the rule is so subjective and haphazardly enforced that to issue an official warning then, at such a big moment, seemed overkill. Ramos could’ve ended the matter with some off-record words of caution. Instead, he hit Williams with her first code violation and an official warning.
“I showed her something that is called ‘coaching,’ so, yes, it is,” Mouratoglou said after. “It was coaching from my side, but she didn’t see me. That’s why she didn’t understand why she had a code violation. I don’t understand why this happens in a Grand Slam final where I never had any warning ever in my career. Second, we all know that all the coaches coach at every match all year long. The coaches know, the players know, the media, the ATP, everyone knows it. ... I’ve seen this umpire in a few matches, this is the first time I see him do things so extreme in all aspects. It’s a shame, I think, to do that and kind of screw the final.”
Though Ramos had, at the 2016 French Open, accused Serena’s sister, Venus, of receiving signals from her coach (a charge vehemently denied by Venus, whose professionalism is a tour standard), Serena recalled no previous history with Ramos. “Not at all,” she said after. “He’s always been a great umpire.” And her first reaction to the warning, Saturday, was actually quite calm. “I understand why you may have thought that was coaching,” Serena told Ramos. “But I’m telling you it’s not: I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
When she reiterated that on the changeover, in fact, Ramos seemed to agree, “I know that too,” he said. “I understand your reaction as well. I’ve never seen that in many years, and I know that.” To which Williams said, “Thank you so much.”
But at that moment Serena also made a grave error: She misinterpreted Ramos’ “understanding” as an admission of fault—and assumed that he had rescinded the warning. He didn’t. Williams found that out at 3-2 when, after failing to consolidate her his first break of Osaka’s serve, she smashed her racket on-court, received a second code violation, and found herself docked a point at the start of the next game. She—along with everyone else—then flashed to her infamous U.S. Open meltdowns, all involving what she still believes is unfair officiating, in 2004, 2009 and 2011—and stalked to the chair.
“This is unbelievable,” she told Ramos. “Every time I play here I have problems.” Reminded that she had broken her racket, Williams replied, wrongly, “Yeah, that’s a warning,” and insisted repeatedly that she didn’t receive coaching. Boos began to rain down. Her voice thickened with rage. “You owe me an apology,” Williams said. “I have never cheated in my life! I have a daughter and I stand [for] what’s right for her! I have never cheated. You owe me an apology. You will never do another one of my matches!”
After she sat down during the next changeover, with Osaka up 4-3, Williams lit into Ramos some more. She accused him of attacking her character, again demanded that apology. “You are the liar,” she said, as Ramos studiously ignored her. She pointed at him, said, “Say it. Say you’re sorry.” Then just before Williams walked up to return to the court, she got in one final word. “And you stole a point from me,” Williams said. “You’re a thief, too.”
At that, Ramos issued her a third code violation—resulting in loss of a game and a 5-3 deficit. Williams’ sobbing appeals to tournament referee Brian Earley and WTA tour supervisor Donna Kelso yielded no change. And this is where the most pointed debate of the day began. No one denies that Williams’ shocking ignorance of the rules, and lack of impulse control—especially with her inflammatory history here—escalated matters beyond control. But while sticklers defend Ramos for defending his own integrity, others find his taking offense at such a crucial moment a clumsy misuse of power. Chair umpires have heard far worse, and let it slide.
“He should’ve scolded her: Miss Williams, you need to be quiet because if you keep going on like this it’ll be a game,” Evert said. “Because of the enormity of the moment, he should’ve given her a little leeway. Instead, he just went right for the jugular.” Unlike some, Evert had no problem with Ramos penalizing Williams for coaching. But the word, “thief”?
“An umpire came down to talk to Nick Kyrgios,” Evert said of Mohamed Lahyani’s coddling of the seemingly tanking Australian in the second round. “I mean, come on: Give her a little love. Give her a little bit of consideration.”
That won’t be easy, not for a while—not with so many rightfully deciding that Serena’s latest bit of chaos—despite her whisper to Osaka on-court of how proud she was of her, despite her demand afterward that the crowd give Osaka her due—ravaged the refreshing new champion’s moment of arrival. Williams, of course, didn’t see it that way. By the end of her tearful plea, in fact, she had begun aligning her travails with a broader cause.
“To lose a game for what we’re saying: That’s not fair,” she told Donna Kelso on-court. “You know how many other men do things ... do much worse than that. There are men out here who have said a lot of things.”
Earley, at that moment, arrived from consulting with Ramos and said to Kelso, “she called him a thief.”
Williams turned to Earley. “There are men out here that do a lot worse,” she said. “But because I’m a woman you’re going to take this away from me? This is not right and you know it. I know you can’t admit but you know it’s not right. ... I get the rules. But I’m just saying it’s not right.”
By the time she sat down for her post-match press conference, Williams had the message honed a bit sharper.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” she said. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say, ‘thief,' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said, ‘thief.’ It blows my mind.
“But I’m going to continue to fight for women and for us to have equal. ... I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and they want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.” Her voice began to shake. “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
At that, Serena’s entourage clapped and yelled, “Yes!” and “You go, ‘Meek!”—short for her middle name, Jameka—and then came the mic-drop: Williams smiled, stood, and walked off the little stage. Her expression resembled the one she wore earlier, exiting the stadium, with opinion splitting every which way and the second-place plate raised high above her head. She looked miserable, yet sort of pleased. It felt like the old days.