The 2018 US Open women's singles final is one that will go down in tennis history, but perhaps not for the right reasons. Many have speculated on the umpiring, and many others on the actions of finalist Serena Williams. Much has been written to vilify her, but then again, much has been written in support of the player " not in the least by Billie Jean King herself.
Sexism truly is a genuine issue within the tennis universe " any tennis player, male or female, will agree. And indeed, who better to speak about sexism in tennis than King and Serena? King was, with other players of her time, forced to form the Women's Tennis Association back in the 1970s due to the lack of equality and payment parity within the sport. Today, it is thanks to her that the WTA exists " and features thousands of female tennis players today.
For tennis fans who were not already familiar with Carlos Ramos, the Portuguese professional is certainly a trending name now. His extremely strict umpiring earned the seasoned vet the ire of finalist Serena, who accused him of sexism, saying that male players rarely, if ever, were umpired as strictly as she was.
Like King, Serena is no stranger to either of the issues she brought up on court on Saturday. The ace has faced both since she and sister Venus were young girls. At the ages of four and six they had racial slurs yelled at them from a parking lot outside their tennis court. Would that not cause anyone some level of deep-seated trauma?
Unfortunately for her, that did not stop there. In a society that is still deeply-rooted in racial politics, Serena was, throughout her career, subject to some of the most vile racial slurs people could muster " including, but not restricted to, the "N-word", and described as a "gangster" for celebrating on court " things that truly would never happen to another player. And make no mistake, Serena has definitely been on the receiving end of selective, and very poor umpiring over her career.
She is also far from the first player to speak out against Ramos. Although Ramos is at the top-tier of tennis umpiring, he is no stranger to handing out code violations like lollipops at a pediatrician's office. He has ruffled the feathers of a few No 1s in his time, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray among them.
Serena's own older sister " and former No 1 Venus " too has faced the ire of Carlos Ramos, as recently as the French Open in 2016. Then, too, Ramos accused the player of coaching. Venus, long the picture of composure on the tennis court, calmly replied to Ramos that she was "not even looking at (my) box, I'm not a cheat" " words her younger sister echoed on Saturday, but perhaps encased in the heat of the moment and her own quite famous fiery temper.
Yes, Serena and Venus may have reacted differently. Yes, their journeys to tennis have been similar and both have had immense success on court. But Serena has been an unparalleled powerhouse, the achievements of 20 tennis players all rolled into one. With pathbreaking successes and immense media attention, let both fans and detractors not forget the fact that she has had to face just as much flak. If only it were restricted to just commentary on her game. However, just as she has had to deal with in the past, Serena has not faced just flak.
You might think it is 2018, and audiences themselves have become far more progressive. You might also believe that racism is not as big a problem in the sport now as it was in the past, when Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were on court. Certainly, the Williams sisters have themselves broken barriers for people of colour in the sport. But only on Saturday, an Australian daily published an immensely racist caricature of the 23 Majors winner. Comments across social media made abhorrent insinuations about her race, her gender, and every issue she brought up on court and then some. The caricature in the Australian daily featured Serena in the mold of the deeply offensive mammy archetype, which has long been used as a racial, and racist caricature of African-American women. That has been around in the USA since the time slavery was still both legal and rampant, through the Jim Crow era and unfortunately from that caricature, it would appear, even today.
Whether Ramos was racist at that final or not is up for debate. What is not up for debate, however, is that Serena continues to face racism from many, many quarters after 20 years in the sport as a professional " and as a woman of colour, for many years prior. Then, as fans, as observers and simply as empathetic human beings, could we perhaps take a collective step back to see exactly why it may have been such a sore spot for the legend?
With this context to examine that final, was Serena's outburst entirely unjustified? Even so, should she perhaps have kept her composure towards the umpire? Considering the historical context of all Serena has gone through, and the fact that Ramos has sometimes fired " and sometimes not " her reaction is understandable, whether or not it is entirely justifiable. This is not to justify her actions or rationalise them. It is not to explain away her rage, nor to excuse the heated words she exchanged. It is to understand, with a little bit of empathy and context, why and how Serena felt this way.
The coaching violation is a tricky one, and with Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou having admitted to doing it, that particular penalty may have been deserved. But Serena has had no legacy of unfairness in her own gameplay. Could her anger have been avoided? Even her mother, Oracene Price, felt that her younger daughter " to the world, the GOAT " "could have kept her cool." Perhaps the manner of the outburst was not needed " but maybe we, as fans and tennis watchers, could take a step back from being hyper-critical of Serena too.
Was Ramos being racist or sexist? It is perhaps some media narratives that may, and indeed did, spin it with those undertones. It is difficult to establish what Ramos may have been thinking, but there is now some context to his behaviour " and plenty and then some for Serena's own reaction to that behaviour. This is a debate that, I suspect, will go on for a long time.
The night, and especially the crowd, certainly marred the final of the US Open. It also affected for some, in its own small way, the legacy of a returning champion who has overcome everything and more to reach the heights she has and unequivocally be called the Greatest of All Time. But should it mar the legacy she has left behind? Certainly not. But I hope, perhaps, that this has left some detractors and critics with a little bit of understanding.
Serena Williams is the GOAT " there's no doubt about it. But over thirty years ago, she was also the talented four-year-old who faced racial abuse firsthand and was, with her sister, called "Blackie One and Blackie Two" in the parking lot of a tennis court.
With this knowledge, perhaps it is then easier to extend a little empathy and understanding towards a player who, for the past twenty years, has given so much to the game and changed it so fundamentally " even if one chooses not to agree with how matters may have played out on court.