The US Open final match between Japan's Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams was always going to be historic. At the semi-final, Osaka explained to reporters that she was able to fend off 13 break points by thinking of one thing: “I just really want to play Serena.” When asked if she had a message for the six-time US Open champ, and winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she simply laughed, “I love you.” But when Osaka beat Williams this weekend, becoming the first Japanese winner of a Grand Slam singles title, it ended in tears for both players – and not of happiness.
The celebration was soured by Williams’ dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos – which dominated the match and subsequent headlines. She received three code violations during an emotional final: she was warned for coaching, then docked a point for smashing a racket, before Ramos penalised her a game after she called him a “liar and a thief”. But her treatment was particularly hard to watch, as it highlighted a sexist double standard in the sport’s treatment of its female players. At a news conference following her loss, Williams said she's seen male players call other umpires "several things" and they had not been penalised.
"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," she said.
"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."
Any mention of sexism tends to set eyes rolling, so, unsurprisingly, when Williams called foul it was swiftly brushed off by some. But her claims have been backed by the governing body of women's tennis, who noted the differential treatment in a statement.
"The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women," WTA chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement. "We do not believe that this was done last night."
Her words hold more venom, her comments appear more cutting by virtue of not what's been said, but who is saying it
Echoing his statement, the head of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which organises the US Open, said that men "are badgering the umpire on the changeovers and nothing happens".
"We watch the guys do this all the time," USTA chief Katrina Adams added. "There's no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires and what the women are doing, and I think there has to be some consistency across the board. I'm all about gender equality and I think, when you look at that situation, these are conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks. We have to treat each other fairly and the same."
Even tennis legend Billie Jean King weighed in, comparing how women’s emotion is viewed on the court compared with men’s. "When a woman is emotional, she's ‘hysterical’ and she's penalised for it,” she tweeted. “When a man does the same, he's ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same."
As a woman and, more importantly, a black woman, Williams’ passion (which is by no means out of place in sport) is far more heavily scrutinised and therefore penalised in comparison with her peers. The stereotypes of being inherently aggressive because of her skin colour, and emotionally unstable because she’s a woman, mean the “angry black woman” label has stuck with her for years. Her words hold more venom, her comments appear more cutting by virtue not of what's being said, but who is saying it. "I've regrettably said worse and I've never gotten a game penalty,” retired US tennis star Andy Roddick chimed in on Twitter.
In another telling example, US Open bosses did not punish coach Mohamed Lahyani in the same tournament for leaving his chair to give Australian player Nick Kyrgios a pep-talk during his second-round win over Pierre-Hughes Herbert. Lahyani – who was only given a ticking-off by chiefs – was deemed to have coached Kyrgios, with Herbert saying the official "overstepped his functions".
When Serena points out these discrepancies, she’s simply met with more of the same derison that sees her treated this way. She’s overreacting; she’s overemotional. It’s a shame it takes quite so many voices for the patently obvious to be made clear.