The U.S. Open Teaches

Commenting on our U.S. Open coverage, a reader observes that a penalty is not the same as a warning during match play and we spun the beginning of the drama in the women’s final, when the queen of Queens — six-time winner Serena Williams — scolded umpire Carlos Ramos for enforcing the rules and turned the show into a nightmare, notably for the young challenger, Naomi Osaka, with the support of most the gallery (24,000 strong) and the tennis establishment led by USTA president Katrina Adams.

TAS stands corrected and appreciates alert reader May Fairfly’s precision. However, we must plead flawed reporting, not spin. Serena Williams received a warning, not a penalty, for coaching, and an automatic point penalty a little later for racquet abuse; and while certainly the two sanctions are not the same, though they are related to the degree warnings unheeded lead to penalties.

Miss Williams broke Miss Osaka’s service early in the second set. She was then broken back (contributing with two doubles). In the next game and starting with a free point, Miss Osaka served to make it 3-3. The reason she got a free point was that Miss Williams had smashed her racket on the floor after Miss Osaka’s break-back; by the rules, such demonstrations of passions earn a point penalty automatically.

Miss Williams was next broken again, making it 3-4. At this point she seems to have got it in her head that it was all due to the original warning, which she viewed as unfair, sexist, and more. She said she was robbed of a game, and by extension, at least implicitly, of the match. Mr. Ramos’s earlier warning about coaching would have perturbed her to the extent of causing her to lose the 3-1 lead. This is, psychologically, not unreasonable, and was the basis for further claims that the ump was not neutral. She argued, or rather denounced, Carlos Ramos during the changeover, and she was not ladylike in the way she spoke to him.

Patrick Mouratoglou after the match said he coached her and some observers thought he made this remarkable statement to take the fall and also to blame the system (“we all do it 100 percent of the time,” he said, which of course implies Miss Williams was being singled out, as she claimed, as well as that the sport is rife with rule-breaking). Maybe his purpose was rather to deflect from the fact that the racket abuse penalty, which was useful, though not crucial, to Miss Osaka’s hold when serving at 2-3, was the problem: his side was losing the match fair and square.

The unseemly argument that followed might have intimidated a less steel-nerved player than Miss Osaka and, failing that, would have served to denigrate her superior play. This may explain Mouratoglou’s statement, but it cannot be asserted absent direct interviews with all the parties. Playing every card in the victimhood catalog all the way through the trophy ceremony and the official presser, condescending to the deserving new champion, leaves open the unhappy notion that the Williams camp was putting forth the spin (the word is apt here) that she did not lose, she was robbed.

That is a very strong term and unfair to the umpire. Shockingly, the USTA bigs made statements that implied they believed this. Whether or not they did, indeed whether or not it was so, the trophy ceremony was scarcely the place to say so. And the uncomfortable consequence was that afterwards, it was apparent that if anyone was robbed it was Miss Osaka,

Shaken and in tears as the crowd booed her, she had the courage to tell top executives and 24,000 hysterical fans to their faces that she knew it was not what they wanted. Yet she had said earlier that on the court, she sees only another player, not an idol. The USTA bigs, alas, were behaving like craven idol-worshippers.

Instead of noting that Miss Osaka’s fortitude and respect were admirable, Miss Williams at the podium nodded coldly when Naomi Osaka made gracious remarks in her direction, rather diminishing her appeal to the crowd to stop booing after letting them do so.

The International Tennis Federation expressed its support for Mr. Ramos. The U.S. Open fined Miss Williams for three code violations (coaching, racquet-smashing, ump-abusing); such fines are not uncommon and several others were assessed during this tournament. The WTA insists that the rules are not applied equally as between women and men and must be revised. Players vary in their view of what this might mean and lead to.

So the women’s final at the 50th U.S Open will be a topic for a while in our national “conversation,” to use the fashionable term. It is only sport, but it is an index of who we are as a society, what we think and want.Meanwhile, the affair still rages through the tennis press, likely will until the Davis Cup semifinals between France and Spain and the U.S. and Croatia in a few days create an opening for other news.It may be a good sign that much if not all of the serious reporting has told it, as used to be said of political news, the way it happened. For this, surely, we can be grateful.

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Author: Roger Kaplan