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The problem with the superheated U.S. Open women’s final wasn’t racism or sexism. It was simple priggishness in the face of Serena Williams’ rage and ego.
The many hot takes will say otherwise, because that kind of madness is hard, and social media has tempered us to expect a binary view.
On Monday, the WTA and USTA suggested that umpire Carlos Ramos was out of line in how he dealt with the situation. The ITF said that he was fine and professional in the discharge of his duties.
What is lost in all of this is nuance. My favorite sport is soccer. In the hours and hours of the game that scroll across various screens over the course of my week, a constant is this: a player charges in to make a tackle. POOM! SLAM! The crowd erupts, the aggrieved player writhes in agony as his teammates erupt. The ref runs over to the pile, and makes a decision.
More often than not the ref will pull the offending player aside for a tongue lashing to the effect of, “Look. You could be in the showers right now. I’m giving you a shot, but am telling you — do that again, and you are out of this match. Understood?”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, that resolves it. Soccer has yellow and red cards, as tennis has its various levels of punitive measures. Unlike in soccer, what Ramos got wrong was nuance in the heat of battle.
In the first, he cautioned Williams.
This was correct. It was then up to her, as she should have done, to tell her coach to knock it off, that she knows what she is doing and just has to do it. It’s Serena Williams. What can you possibly tell her during a match that she doesn’t already know?
Ramos also took correct action after she destroyed her racket. It’s after that when things go off the rails for him, Williams and the innocent bystander, Osaka, whose dreams of winning that final, her first major, probably didn’t include weeping when she should have been grinning.
It is also at that key moment that Ramos should have said to Williams, calmly: “Look. I understand that you are angry, but you should control your language. If it continues, you will be assessed a game penalty. This is up to you.”
It is then up to Williams to choose how she wants to proceed.
People tasked with controlling a sporting event, particularly a major final, have power. But they also have discretion. You can let stuff go. Do you think Naomi Osaka would have minded had Ramos given Williams a pass, or let her rant before returning to his box? She was winning. And yes, had Williams been thumping Osaka as so many expected, her situation wouldn’t have been so frayed. But a chief official’s license includes the leeway to allow for that.
In 2017, when Novak Djokovic berated Ramos at the French Open after getting a warning for slow play, the outcome was different. Djokovic made a gesture like he was going to hit a ball in Ramos’ direction, and told him he was “losing his mind.” Did Ramos apply a different level of judgment and discretion? Djokovic hadn’t destroyed a racket, so it was still just a matter of verbal abuse but there was leeway granted; he got a warning.
Ramos is known as a stickler for rules. Every official should be. But the officials who get the respect of players are those who understand a situation. At a major final, a player who isn’t playing well, and well below her standard, is already salty enough to season a hundred omelets. You can let that player vent a bit. If she calls you a thief, what does it matter to you? Your job is to make sure the match is played fairly for both opponents. How does her calling you a thief damage Osaka and her chances to win?
But again, there is nuance. By the letter of the law, Ramos was exactly right, as the ITF said in a statement. But he was also guilty of a lack of nuance and understanding of the moment, as the WTA and USTA made clear in their statements.
There are hot takes about Williams, a few about what a shame it was that Osaka has been relegated to a footnote at what should have been her coming-out party. She was brilliant, fighting fire with fire, not backing down, raising her game when Williams raised hers. It was a magnificent match.
Was Ramos racist or sexist? No idea what was in his heart. But his lack of flexibility in the face of a match-defining moment allowed those questions to be raised. And that means that he didn’t do his job, because his job is to adjudicate the match equitably, and not become part of the outcome.
Williams was able to salvage some of her bad moment via grace during the presentation, but the evidence of her rage is there. Ramos, however, looms over this, and whether he learns at all from this moment, only time will tell.